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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Complex Networks is making the most out of staying at home

April 2, 2020 | By Will Harris – Independent Journalist @NonStopPop

These days, the new normal involves a whole lot of not going anywhere, and it’s a situation that’s wreaked havoc on businesses of all kinds. Yes, that includes streaming programming, too, particularly those of the scripted variety. While viewers abound, production shutdowns have placed the future of many programs on uncertain footing. Some shows have decided that they can –and will – go on, COVID-19 be damned. However, the inability to film within a standard studio environment has necessitated some serious outside-the-box thinking and a whole lot of making the most of what one has at hand.

For Complex Networks, this sort of thing is old hat. Some of their most successful series to date have emerged as a result of being scrappy in the face of budgetary and situational constraints.

Wings and chill

Take Hot Ones as one tasty example. It all started when Chris Schoenberger, GM of Complex Networks’ First We Feast, and host Sean Evans were setting up to interview a guest. After spying some hot sauce in the company kitchen, they came up with the idea of interviewing people while serving them hot wings.

“I think the wings have probably improved in quality since the first time around,” says Justin Killion, laughing. “And the sauce has certainly improved! But it came out of being as opportunistic as possible, given the limited resources that the company had at the time.”

If anyone would know, it’s Killion. He’s GM of Complex Networks and EVP of Operations and Content, and he knows everything there is to know about Complex programming. As such, when he suggests that a few semi-new series in Complex’s programming lineup have the potential to be an heir apparent to Hot Ones, you may want to add them to your “what to watch” list.

Fun and franchises

“If you’re talking about new franchises, Tacos Con Todo, which First We Feast just put out, that show is excellent, and we also did another one called Gochi Gang,” said Killion. “I think both of those are franchises that you’re going to see us double-down on and potentially do more of. But if you want to talk about a breakout show, Full Size Run is right on the cusp. It’s a little bit of an in-the-weeds sneaker show, for true sneakerheads. But it’s edited in a fashion not that dissimilar to what you see on Adult Swim. I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. I really don’t think there is anything quite like it!”

Killion knows all too well how much of a whirlwind the business of streaming entertainment has become in the face of the Coronavirus outbreak – and how much of a boost everyone’s numbers have gotten with people being stuck inside.

“Truth be told, we’re up 35 percent in engagement on our YouTube shows over the last two, two-and-a-half weeks,” said Killion. “That’s just incredible. Our dot.com is up over 20 percent. Our social is up significantly. We’ve seen a massive spike in Tik Tok. We’re doing about five times the daily views that we were doing prior to the quarantine.”

Thirst and lemonade

Looking at these numbers is one of the few ways to make lemonade out of the lemons everyone’s being handed lately. (And by “lemons,” of course, we mean “stay-at-home orders.”) But the public’s thirst for entertainment has also resulted in a certain degree of forgiveness from the viewership, which puts Complex in a position to try some things that they might never have risked doing before.

“The quality of the content still needs to be there. But we’re at a moment in time where no one’s getting dragged for putting out content that isn’t exactly up to their usual standards of polish,” said Killion. “That allows us to take chances that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to take. So, there’s been a lot of experimentation.”

Case and point: Life at Complex. In the pre-coronavirus world, the series involved host Tony Mui wandering around the Complex offices, interviewing staff members. Killion describes the show as “a look-how-cool-it-is-to-work-here kind of thing.” However, when everyone is suddenly working at home, you’re looking at some retooling.

Sole-ful solutions

“What Tony’s turned the show into is almost like an incubator each week for a different format that we’re gonna try,” explained Killion. “One episode is him checking in with all of [Complex’s] different deputy editors… Just kind of getting a sense of what their home life is like in general and getting to know them a little. Then, he did something called ‘Sneaker Battles,’ where he took Brendan Dunne, our host of Full Size Run, and paired him with someone from our editing team. They were comparing sneakers from their own personal closet, and had it judged by one of our directors of photography from Sneaker Shopping.”

Killion says that it’s a fun format that they were able to quickly pull together. However, he points out that, if they’d been producing the show prior to their current ad-hoc situation, “the level of polish on it would have to be significantly higher. We would’ve been shooting with a crew at four different locations to make that happen. Instead, it’s just turning on a computer monitor at four different locations!”

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