By Sahil Patel
When Conde Nast Entertainment started to roll out its digital video network last April, beginning with channels for GQ and Glamour, the division initially focused on short-form, “service”-oriented content. The launch slate for both channels consisted of shows that very much fit the mold of what people watch in droves online — how-to content, personality-driven, or both.
But that wasn’t all CNE had planned for its video play. Ambitions were higher at the programming division, and that began to manifest when the GQ channel premiered “Casualties of the Gridiron,” a documentary series that takes a deep and human look at the issue of head injuries in pro football.
Now the show, which was directed by Isaac Solotaroff, and CNE are being recognized by the industry — nominated in the Outstanding Sports Documentary Series category at the 35th annual Sports Emmy Awards.
“We are thrilled to receive this recognition and grateful to Conde Nast Entertainment to have the vision to make this new GQ platform available to do a hard-hitting documentary series,” says Solotaroff. “Its wonderful to partner with a venerable brand such as GQ and reach such a wide audience. This opens up new avenues to independent filmmakers and production companies.”
It’s an impressive trajectory for CNE, no matter how you slice it, going from not having a video network to competing with stalwarts like ESPN and its “30 for 30” banner and HBO’s critically acclaimed “24/7” franchise.
“We’re fortunate that our programming team is really plugged into the filmmaking community,” says Michael Klein, EVP of programming and content strategy at CNE. As Klein explains it, one of the CNE executives knew Solotaroff and found out about “Casualties.”
To CNE, the documentary was a perfect match for GQ, which had covered the topic of head injuries in the NFL in 2009. “We thought it would be a great fit for the channel and a real opportunity to bring a hard-hitting documentary into the GQ family,” says Klein.
It was also an opportunity to build GQ’s video brand and fashion it as a natural video extension of what the magazine was already doing in print. “When you think of GQ, you think of smart guys looking sharp,” said CNE chief digital officer Fred Santarpia in an interview with VideoInk last December. “But if you pick up any copy of GQ, you’re also likely to see a 10,000-word feature on a topic that’s really meaningful to the modern, sophisticated male reader. ‘Casualties’ is our video equivalent of that.”
CNE calls this “tentpole programming,” and it’s something the division has been focusing on in addition to those snackable clips. The success of “Casualties,” which has generated close to 5.5 million views across GQ’s video syndication network in addition to the Sports Emmy nomination, certainly validates CNE’s ambitions.
“We are fortunate that each of these channels are based on iconic Conde Nast brands that stand for something in the minds of consumers,” says Klein. CNE’s goal, then, is to take the tenets of each of its brands and translate them into video form. “It’s critical for us that the brand voice comes through for us,” says Klein. “And it’s different from GQ to Vanity Fair to Glamour and on.”
Outside of “Casualties,” CNE also distributed “Screw You Cancer,” an intimate documentary series for its Glamour channel, last year.
More “tentpole” shows are on the way, Klein confirmed, and not just in the documentary format. CNE is also looking at scripted projects.
But don’t think that means CNE is hung-up on only producing longer-form programming. “We’re not dogmatic about length of programming,” says Klein. What’s more important, according to the executive, is if the content is engaging and would resonate with the audience.
“In terms of what becomes a tentpole, it’s about what our audience needs and our ability to deliver on that,” says Klein. “Do we have stories that are relevant, engaging, and can start conversations?”
That last part, about starting conversations rather than just producing stuff that’s tied to the conversations that are already happening, is also important to CNE. “When you think about the access we have as an organization, that’s something we can really use to find stories that are on the verge of trending,” and in doing so lead that conversation, says Klein.
If that leads to more Emmy nominations, great. “But really, audience first,” says Klein.