As a dozen members of the production team at Cheddar, a startup internet TV company, settle into their cramped control room at a co-working space in downtown Manhattan, Donald J. Trump looms large. Literally: One of the room’s largest screens, named RS2-DON, is tuned to a feed from the White House pool camera, currently showing the wrought-iron front door of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. On this frigid afternoon a few days after Christmas, the president-elect is expected to make an announcement about, well, something. No one knows what. Or exactly when. All the Cheddar crew can do is watch and wait.
Trump or no Trump, Cheddar’s Closing Bell show is about to start, live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The two-hour show airs every weekday not on linear TV, but all over the web. You can watch it, and Cheddar’s two other shows, on Facebook and Twitter, through Sling or DirecTV Now, on its Roku channel or Apple TV app, or on your smartphone. The company’s big plan is to be everywhere video is—everywhere but your cable box.
Since launching nearly a year ago, Cheddar has evolved and experimented, trying to figure out how to make live TV work in the on-demand era. It’s CNN minus (most of) the old white guys, CNBC minus the bank and oil stocks. It aims to learn from, and ultimately replace, those channels as the future of live television. Which means it has to be on time. So when the clock hits 3, executive producer Kavitha Shastry, with an eye on RS2-DON, starts the show.
The Best Shows You Don’t Watch
Jon Steinberg started plotting Cheddar in 2015, after leaving his post as the Daily Mail‘s North American CEO. Before that, he served as president and COO at BuzzFeed. He had cred in the media world, and plenty of job opportunities. But Steinberg was ready to start something on his own.
Steinberg saw a gap in the so-called “golden age of television.” Netflix and HBO made the prestige content, Facebook and YouTube dominated viral clips, but there wasn’t much for when all you wanted to watch was… something. People watch CNBC, Steinberg reasons, partly because they want to hear the news but mostly to have something on in the background. But only old people watch CNBC, and nobody’s making that stuff for a digital audience. You could argue that’s because the digital audience doesn’t want that stuff, which even Steinberg acknowledges is a possibility. But he’s betting that even as tech changes, viewing behavior won’t. An audience that doesn’t care about The Today Show, he thinks, will still want something to watch while they get the kids ready for school; offices full of millennials will still want a stock ticker on in the background. He calls it “window on the world content” or “ambient TV.”
Steinberg wasn’t sure exactly what this new channel should look like. He just knew it had to be live, so that something would be on every time you tuned in. And as a lifelong CNBC fan (and more recent talking head), he sensed that the business-news formula was ripe for reinvention. Steinberg came up with the “Cheddar 50,” the cool tech and media companies the network would focus on. “My view on it was,” Steinberg says, “Amazon, Netflix, Google, Airbnb, Tesla, Facebook, Snap: that was a whole live news network. That should be the whole thing. One hour wasn’t enough, two hours wasn’t enough—that was an enormous part of culture.”
TV you don’t really pay attention to doesn’t make for the sexiest pitch, which might explain why everyone told him it was a bad idea. “Everyone,” Steinberg tells me, “except Jeremy Liew.”
Liew, a partner at venture-capital firm Lightspeed Ventures, also has plenty of cred in the media world. He was the first person to invest in Snapchat, and when Snap went public, Lightspeed’s $485,000 reportedly turned into as much as $2 billion. After talking to Steinberg in early 2016, he also became the first investor in Cheddar, putting $3 million into the fledgling startup. He bought in based on a simple idea: that every TV channel will have its digital analog (and potential usurper), and the opportunity to seize that airspace is right now. He rattles them off: Cheddar is CNBC, Mic is CNN, LittleThings is daytime talk shows. Lightspeed has invested in all three, and Liew’s looking for more. “I’d love to find a home shopping analog and a televangelism analog,” he says, sounding like he’s kidding but not really kidding at all.
Cheddar’s original plan was to sell native advertising integrated into its shows, and put itself on every so-called skinny bundle it could manage. Then, in April of 2016, Facebook Live happened. Live wasn’t exactly designed as a cable competitor—Mark Zuckerberg envisioned it more as a messaging platform, “a big shift in how we communicate”—but it put a billion-plus potential viewers one click away. For Cheddar, it was too good to resist.
Cheddar’s first show aired on Facebook Live the following Monday, April 11. This was before Facebook had an API allowing other devices to tap into the tech, so the crew filmed everything as it would a normal TV broadcast—and then wrapped an iPhone in cardboard to keep external light out, pointed it at a monitor, and blasted a bootleg feed to the world. Despite the primitive setup, the show went well. Sort of. The crew lost connection for a while, the pre-produced packages had no sound, and the show ran out of steam after about 40 minutes. But the guests showed up, the cameras rolled, and they made a show for an audience larger than zero. “We’ll be back tomorrow,” Steinberg told the camera at the end, half promise and half threat.
Pretty soon the team figured out how to fill an hour. Then two hours. Then four, and six. The shows air live almost everywhere, all at once. “I need to have a lot more stamina today than I did a year ago,” says Kristen Scholer, Cheddar’s senior anchor. At the beginning, she says, “we were going live at the same time every morning, and there was almost a floating out point.” Now things are more carefully planned, and the show more often hits its mark. Steinberg says he no longer goes to bed worrying about whether or not they’ll have anything to put on air tomorrow. But he still feels like Cheddar’s only at the very beginning of figuring out what exactly it’s going to be.
From Primitive to Professional
After almost a full year of broadcasting, Steinberg says Cheddar is up to a million live views per day across platforms, and is reaching the audience it wants: On Facebook, 60 percent of viewers are under 35. You can also find Cheddar’s shows on Twitter, Periscope, Vimeo, Amazon, iOS, Sling, Apple TV, and Roku, or even on platforms you’ve definitely never heard of, like Pluto and Xumo. For $6.99, you can get access to exclusive interviews and the full Cheddar archive. The company’s growing up.
In the process, Cheddar’s programming has become far more polished—more like CNBC, but less formal. It has a pink logo with a slice of cheese, after all. Its shows feature hosts sitting behind a desk talking to expert guests—but the hosts are younger, more diverse, more prone to goof off mid-segment. On the day I visited, a segment about Trump and the economy derailed when the producers noticed the guest, Politico’s Peter Sterne, was wearing Apple’s new AirPods, which became the focus of the segment.
This informality is, in many ways, a necessity. Cheddar doesn’t have studios around the country or budgets to fly guests in, so the team relies on sometimes-wonky Skype feeds. Since Facebook Live encourages fast and constant viewer feedback—as does Twitter, whose live video offering Cheddar also jumped on immediately—it makes sense to break the fourth wall and involve viewers’ questions and comments. And it makes Cheddar’s inevitable problems a little less jarring. “We brought the audience along for the ride,” Scholer says, “so they were hearing about any technology issues we were having, and they were part of it too.”
Cheddar’s back-end tech allows broadcasting from a phone, a tablet, or really anything with a camera. That’s mostly a cost-cutting measure (Steinberg says Cheddar got up and running for a tenth the cost of a normal broadcast network) but the technical flexibility also gives Cheddar room to experiment with new ways of reporting. When Snap first dropped its Spectacles vending machine, Steinberg, in the middle of the show, called Daniel Schneider and told him to go get in line. Schneider, Cheddar’s biz-dev guy, livestreamed a FaceTime call of his entire experience, giving Cheddar the first-ever footage of what it was like to buy and use Spectacles. It was low-res, poorly framed, and as Liam Roecklein, Cheddar’s VP of content, points out, something CNN couldn’t do.
— Cheddar (@cheddar) November 10, 2016
Of course, Cheddar isn’t the only company trying to reinvent television on the internet. While it’s younger and hipper than other business media, it’s still competing with Vice and Mic and BuzzFeed and your favorite YouTuber for attention. It’s also working out how to make its footage fit to air across platforms. The best Facebook videos are silent and text-heavy, but that won’t work on Sling; the conversational informality that works live doesn’t make for viral YouTube clips. “It was always our intention as a company to be a live news and entertainment network,” Gorenstein says. “We have to just focus on that one main goal right now. Then if it’s a smashing success and people can’t get enough, maybe we do more.”
One benefit of all the platform diversity: Cheddar can respond to the news immediately. Its shows don’t have to end on time, start in their allotted spaces, or exist in only one format. As the Closing Bell‘s two hours wind down, and Trump continues his Mar-a-Lago tease, Cheddar’s producers decide to stay on until the president-elect speaks—whenever that is. One steps out to call MLBAM, which handles the back-end streaming tech for the Twitter shows, to let them know they’re going to stay up. Another tells Sling the same.
“We hope millennials come to us for the Trump stuff,” Roecklein says, and this is a chance to make sure Cheddar’s ready. Luckily, it doesn’t take long: At 5:06, only a minute or so after the producers decide which bouncy music to play over the boring stream, Trump comes out, gives a short speech taking credit for Sprint bringing 5,000 jobs back to the US, and leaves. After he’s finished, the crew files out of the control room, muttering about the anticlimax of the whole thing.
Everyone files into a conference room across the hall, where Roecklein leads a production meeting to begin planning the next day. He has notes on today’s show, too—a couple of segments ran too long, and there were some weird technical difficulties with a guest—but everyone seems happy. The show stayed live, and more importantly, people watched. And tomorrow they’ll be back on again, trying to do it all a little bit better.