Interview: The Young Turks Reach for ‘New Media Legitimacy’

/ Apr 18, 2013


New media businesses have a legitimacy moment, and for online video, that happens at the One Billion view mark. Cenk Ugyur and the rest of The Young Turks team, for instance, have been counting down the days until they hit this magical number on their YouTube channel.

The Young Turks, which began in 2002 as a radio talk show with a liberal bent, has evolved eleven years later into two programs: one on Current TV which was recently purchased by Al Jeezera, the other streamed live via web and YouTube. The show has been getting at least 750,000 views a day since April 2012, but Ugyur described establishing credibility as a news network among old news networks an almost “herculean task” in a phone interview about the approaching billion view mark.

“Your online show can be bigger than a TV show,” and you can even “cover the same exact issue” but “if you are on TV, you exist,” while online “you don’t, you don’t count” said Ugyur. In fact, “people used to ask me ‘What’s your [real] job?” said Ugyur. “It used to happen all the time.”

In 2011, The Young Turks was generating one million dollars in revenue after they hit their 500 million view mark. Ugyur was unwilling to reveal the revenue amount for last year, but he would say two million in revenue today is an underestimate and that he personally makes a “healthy” income along with his staff.

So yes, it’s very much his full-time job.

Most of the revenue generated by various Young Turk episodes, however, is pumped right back into the show,

“We want to improve production, we have a lot more revenue” said Ugyur, “and we also want to keep things changing so it is fresh with the audience; there’s a constant need to improve the show in every way possible.”

One of these ways includes changing the seating and background, which Ugyur says they listen to their audience for. “Some sets they like better than others and if they don’t love one, we change it” said Ugyur.

Note the increase in production value and set change over 4 years:


The production quality is clear (higher definition), and the background set is modern and even includes flat screen TV’s in the background:


Ugyur described this type of audience feedback as an “important tool to helping improve the show” but also thinks this two-way interaction is part of his show’s strength.

Many broadcasters are “preaching from the mountaintop, and present this image that they are above everything… where with our audience we respond to it, because that’s what decent human beings do,” said Ugyur, stressing he reads all their feedback and actively works with his audience.

Web TV and what he does, said Ugyur, is “more intimate;” he’s not reading from a script like “a robot” but reacting to the news in a “human way,” and he thinks this is what keeps his audience coming back.

Ugyur isn’t the first person to tout the importance of audience feedback; everyone from independent film-maker and YouTube businessman Freddie Wong to the retail search giant Amazon has noted the ability to interact with the audience as a core strength of online video.

In an interview regarding their fourteen new web series launching this summer, Amazon’s vice president of music and video Bill Carr, told Business Week last month “We think there is an opportun­ity to reinvent the process of developing original films and TV shows by getting lots of feedback and input from our customers much earlier in the development process.”

Given Amazon’s digital roots, it’s not surprising they would be open to using online audiences as a test bed.

As for what will happen in the future, a question everyone asks Ugyur he noted, the answer is still “total media domination.”

“We want to be the largest online news network, and we are now which is great,” mused Ugyur, who then admitted “more important than anything else, we hope the rest of the media copies our success and starts being honest with their audiences. Seems that Vice Media has plans to follow suit.

Even if we changed the way the game was played I would be very gratified by that” said Ugyur.

It appears he already has.

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