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- Business Insider spoke with 13 current and former employees of Condé Nast Entertainment, the famed publisher’s video-production entity, about the process through which videos are pitched and produced.
- Sources said this vetting process, which measures the various parts of a pitch against historical data, consistently rejected video pitches that would feature people of color and topics about nonwhite communities.
- In recent weeks, some of Condé Nast Entertainment’s 400-plus employees have rallied against this process, according to recordings of company meetings, as a larger reckoning about race takes hold in the media industry.
- Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch recently advised caution when it came to the scale check, according to a recording reviewed by Business Insider. “Whatever system they use for scalability, AI systems have inherent prejudicial things within them,” he said.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The executives who lead Condé Nast Entertainment, the famed publisher’s video-production arm, are devoted to what’s called the “scale check,” according to current and former employees.
During a scale check, a select group of employees measures the various parts of a pitch against historical data. People and ideas deemed “scalable” are then ranked highly in an internal spreadsheet. For brand-new content, a rarefied group of about 30 develops the ideas that will become series.
If a video idea doesn’t pass this process, it rarely goes online, five current and six former employees told Business Insider.
The scale check and the closely linked development process are overseen by Joe Sabia, the senior vice president of creative development, and Ian Edgar, the vice president of creative strategy and video programming. This content-creation system has become core to a unit that develops and produces more than 4,000 digital videos a year for the publisher’s magazines.
Condé Nast now racks up 1 billion video views per month, compared with its 88 million print subscribers and 427 million online readers. New Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch reportedly said video could be a $1 billion opportunity for the company.
But the vetting process also consistently rejected video pitches that would feature people of color and topics about nonwhite communities, according to 13 current and former Condé Nast Entertainment employees, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the company.
Sources said the scale check led Condé Nast Entertainment to reject a video of Lizzo centered on her 2019 Allure cover, for example, and a video that would feature Megan Thee Stallion before she coined the phrase “hot girl summer.” It also apparently prompted the company to direct the video channel for Them, a brand dedicated to stories from LGBTQ communities, to focus on producing scores of celebrity drag makeovers over coverage of queer communities.
And some employees said it led the Condé Nast Entertainment to cast some chefs of color at Bon Appétit primarily as side characters for their video appearances — roles for which they were largely uncompensated — while some of their white colleagues cleaned up with hosting gigs that came with hefty contracts.
“I see it as a racist system,” one current Condé Nast Entertainment employee involved in series development said. This employee said they had pitched dozens of series and videos that would feature diverse talent and had seen just one accepted.
Some of Condé Nast Entertainment’s team of about 400 are pushing back against this vetting process, according to recordings of recent internal meetings. And on June 11, Lynch advised caution when it came to the scale check.
“Whatever system they use for scalability, AI systems have inherent prejudicial things within them that you have to be careful about,” Lynch said in the meeting, according to a recording reviewed by Business Insider.
He added, “If they’re using historical data to project future outcomes and the historical data has racist or prejudicial influences in it, then you only get that outcome going forward, if you use that as your only guide.”
A survey presented by Condé Nast Entertainment’s president, Oren Katzeff, in a staffwide Zoom meeting on June 25 indicated that employees wanted more diverse voices in series and video development, according to a recording reviewed by Business Insider.
A working group led by Reggie Williams, Condé Nast Entertainment’s senior vice president of programming, will present initiatives in August to address diversity in content, while three working groups will address talent development, community, and education within Condé Nast Entertainment, Katzeff announced in the meeting. (All 400 Condé Nast Entertainment employees received the survey, and 70 responded.)
Still, the company hasn’t announced concrete plans to move away from the scale check.
And a Daily Beast article in June revealed that Katzeff had made racist and sexist jokes in tweets in the past.
Employees said the lack of meaningful action with regard to the scale check and Katzeff’s tweets contrasted with the company’s pledges to increase diversity in its video content.
Condé’s chaotic June
A Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd on May 25 and the massive protests that came after it have provoked a national reckoning over police brutality and racism in public and private spheres.
In media, Bon Appétit became a flashpoint for conversations about institutional racism. Over three days in June, the Condé Nast food magazine saw its editor in chief, Adam Rapoport, and its head of video, Matt Duckor, step down following allegations of racism from former and current employees.
On June 8, the food and wine writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted an old Instagram post showing Rapoport dressed in a Halloween costume that many described as brownface. A day later, another Twitter user unearthed Duckor’s offensive tweets about gay people and people of color.
Those executives, both of whom are white men, presided over a toxic and exclusionary environment, employees previously told Business Insider — one they said led some nonwhite employees at Bon Appétit, like Sohla El-Waylly, not to receive income through Condé Nast Entertainment for their video work. (Their video work was considered part of their employment for Bon Appétit, though some on-camera talent also received an additional contract and additional compensation if they had a series.)
When previously asked whether people of color who were on camera for Bon Appétit were paid less than their white counterparts, a Conde Nast representative said in an emailed statement, “It’s simply not true to say that any employee is not paid for their work.”
In solidarity with their coworkers, the on-camera talent at Bon Appétit has not participated in videos since the second week of June.
Williams told Business Insider that there “needs to be a lot more experimentation at Bon Appétit.” Going forward, he said, the food magazine’s video channel would feature more people of color and especially more Black people.
But what afflicts Bon Appétit’s videos also taints other Condé Nast videos, according to interviews with the current and former Condé Nast Entertainment employees.
Matching YouTube trends with Condé brands
The videos branded with the names Vogue, Bon Appétit, or one of Condé Nast’s 15 other titles are not created by employees of those magazines, employees said. Instead, a brand’s programming team goes to the Condé Nast Entertainment development team with an idea of what they need.
The development team at Condé Nast Entertainment creates pilots that could turn into regular series. If the pilot finds a sizable audience after three episodes, it’s handed over to the brand’s staff, with ongoing input from Edgar and the strategy team.
While Condé Nast Entertainment works with nearly 60 video platforms, the content is molded for YouTube. The video platform allows for more exposure than an individual magazine’s website but is more monetizable than Facebook, which does not offer the same sort of revenue share that YouTube does.
This puts pressure on Condé Nast Entertainment’s team to understand YouTube’s complex search algorithm. That gave rise to what three employees called the “machine” of Condé Nast Entertainment’s development team and scale check.
Through the pitching and scale-check process, Sabia and Edgar essentially decide what videos are or aren’t published at Condé Nast Entertainment, nine current and former employees told Business Insider. “They have their own laws,” one current employee said.
Sabia spearheads much of the series development, which often consists of matching popular YouTube trends with ways they could be produced on a magazine platform.
Edgar and a team of about six strategists study these concepts with an outside service called Tubular, which aggregates data on almost any imaginable topic on YouTube. They see which celebrity talent would be the best match and whether the components of the video would resonate on YouTube.
One product from this process is Glamour’s “You Sang My Song” series, in which artists watch fan covers of their songs on YouTube. The fans gush over their idol enjoying their cover. The most popular, featuring Billie Eilish, has over 131 million views.
This strategy doesn’t always work. Sabia’s attempt to capitalize on the lucrative YouTube toy-review industry resulted in three Glamour videos of celebrities reviewing toys. The series failed to find an audience and was shuttered in the pilot stage, an employee familiar with the situation told Business Insider.
They’re “good at coming up with ideas that are feel-good and easy to scale,” Elizabeth Thompson, a former deputy editor at Iris, a shuttered Condé Nast Entertainment brand for women, told Business Insider. “The secret sauce is an army of people whose job it is to dissect analytics on YouTube and then turn it into a replicable series.”
For Condé’s part, Williams said he didn’t see the scale system and progressive storytelling as contradictory forces. “I push back on the notion that the desire to make popular videos is inherently a bad thing,” he said. “In order to have cultural impact, you have to reach people, no matter what the cause.”
But he added that “solely relying on scale can impede experimentation.”
Edgar did not respond to a request for comment. Sabia communicated through a Condé Nast representative.
From ‘strip quiz’ to ’73 Questions’
Sabia came to Condé Nast Entertainment in 2014 as a freelance consultant. He was hired by Michael Klein, an executive vice president from 2010 to 2016. Sabia previously held digital roles in Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, HBO, and Myspace.
Sabia’s video résumé, posted on Vimeo, says that in 2008 he created the “first interactive video strip quiz,” in which a model undresses as the user correctly answers questions.
A Condé Nast representative said that seven women and four men were options as models and that the purpose of the strip quiz was “to educate people and get them involved in the election.”
Sabia’s résumé also mentions his past as a stand-up comedian specializing in puns. Many of these so-called puns involved sexual innuendo and callous remarks.
In one set from 2010, he joked that if he had sex with one “hoe,” her “Tenderloin” — referring to both her genitalia and a San Francisco neighborhood with a large population of homeless people — would render him “dead or on crack.”
This background made him an unusual pick to develop content for a prominent and storied media company. But he scored a massive success in 2014 with “73 Questions,” a now beloved series at Vogue in which a celebrity is asked a flurry of 73 questions in a single shot at their home.
Sabia conducts each interview, and the YouTube description below the video often says “created by Joe Sabia.” He has collected awards for the series, and in conversations with several publications like The Cut and Fashion Week Daily he was credited as “the guy behind Vogue’s ’73 Questions'” and “the Vogue ’73 Questions’ guy.”
But Sabia wasn’t the only person involved in its creation; a filmmaker named Shruti Ganguly was instrumental in the process too.
Following his direction of a Vanity Fair video, Sabia was approached by Condé Nast Entertainment to do a video featuring Sarah Jessica Parker. He pitched the idea of asking Parker 100 questions in three minutes, in her home, in a single shot, according to email screenshots provided by a Condé Nast representative.
Sabia asked a friend, Vince Peone, to help shoot the video. Peone came up with the idea that Parker should be looking directly into the camera. Ganguly, then freelancing at Condé Nast Entertainment as a supervising producer, was also brought on.
Condé Nast Entertainment said Sabia himself cut the questions to 73 from 100. Ganguly said that Sabia originally cut these questions to 69 and that she pushed back on that. (A representative for Condé Nast said there was no internal documentation to suggest that Sabia pitched the idea of 69 questions.)
Ganguly said she then went over the videos and reworked a three-minute version and a version closer to six minutes. She compared the two and concluded the longer one was better.
But it was 2014, and videos longer than a minute or two were not the norm. Ganguly said she pushed Vogue’s executive producers to use the longer one. They didn’t listen. Ganguly, who now owns a film studio that counts MTV and Sony among its clients, asked Sabia to step in. The executive producers then agreed to the longer cut.
“It’s hard not to overlook that Shruti is a woman of color and Joe is a white man,” said Mary Koseras, who held several senior positions at Condé Nast Entertainment, including senior digital editor and digital editorial lead, from 2013 to 2015.
“When you add it all up, they trusted Joe’s voice over Shruti’s,” Koseras told Business Insider. “They trusted Joe to come up with content for women’s lifestyle magazines over the women in the room.”
Before the video went up, Ganguly contacted Peggy Wang, a founding editor at BuzzFeed, and gave her access to the video. The day the Vogue video went up, a BuzzFeed article laden with gifs went up too. Shruti said this helped drive significant traffic to the video.
“The success of a video is not only about the idea and the concept,” Ganguly said. “It’s about how it comes out and the strategy of how it comes out. That was not Joe.”
She said she had not received credit from Condé Nast Entertainment for her involvement. “I’m disappointed in these systems that are meant to push people like me out,” Ganguly told Business Insider. (A Condé Nast representative said Peone and Sabia both receive credit for “73 Questions” because they both retroactively asked for it. Ganguly did not, according to Condé Nast Entertainment and Ganguly.)
For some women at Condé Nast Entertainment who feel their work is not valued, the question of who created “73 Questions” is emblematic of a larger issue.
“Joe Sabia took ’73 Questions’ from a woman of color,” one former producer said. “This was an open known fact around all of Condé that this was not Joe Sabia’s series. But for some reason, it was associated with him.”
At the time, both Sabia and Ganguly were freelancers. Sabia was hired as a head of development after “73 Questions” and was rapidly promoted to vice president, then senior vice president. Ganguly, after freelancing as a supervising producer, was offered a job with less power than the one she had held.
Ganguly, who holds an MBA and an MFA from New York University and was previously a senior director at MTV, left in early 2015. Months later, Sabia hired Edgar, a longtime friend. Five years later, the two men have offices next to each other.
The ‘algorithm’ is less scientific than it’s made out to be
While Sabia’s and Edgar’s vetting process dominates much of Condé Nast Entertainment, employees said it’s unclear to the rest of Condé Nast Entertainment how it functions or where the numbers come from.
Each pitch is entered into a spreadsheet, where it’s assigned a number from one to five, four employees said. A five means the video will not scale, while a one is a guaranteed home run. A three may mean the story can be pitched in the next quarter after it’s workshopped.
Edgar, another member of the strategy team, and the programming lead all enter a number into this spreadsheet. Edgar’s number is typically weighted the most, but the magazine’s video team may ignore it if it has good reason. Slightly more than 100 people in the organization have access to these spreadsheets, a Condé Nast representative said.
Whether the topic is food or a person, these numbers are largely determined through analyzing data from Tubular, the outside data service. Of Condé Nast Entertainment 400-odd employees, a Condé Nast representative said, 21 have a Tubular log-in. (BuzzFeed, CBS, and Tastemade are among the media companies using Tubular, according to its website.)
Bon Appétit employees previously said this model deemed certain food — and therefore certain cultures — unprofitable. Despite pushes for more diverse content, those involved in series development continued to produce videos featuring ingredients familiar to a white American audience, often cooked by white American chefs.
According to former and current employees, Tubular is seemingly responsible for the algorithm behind the scale check that led Condé Nast Entertainment to snub Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion as each were exploding in popularity. Previous videos on YouTube didn’t signify that either would be a hit. A 2017 Vogue video featuring Lizzo, for instance, had about 200,000 views.
Some of these videos were years old, and some employees said they felt they were not a reasonable measure of what might happen next.
Ultimately, Allure produced a video with Lizzo last year, bypassing Edgar’s scale check; the video has nearly 6 million views. In recent months, Vogue, Teen Vogue, GQ, and Pitchfork have featured Megan Thee Stallion in videos, two of which were viewed several million times.
Representatives for the two artists did not respond to a request for comment.
“They don’t think it’s racist because it’s numbers,” an employee on the development team said. “But numbers can be racist.”
A Tubular representative told Business Insider in an emailed statement:
“While Tubular cannot comment on how a specific client uses of Tubular, we can assure you that there is a massive effort made to provide an independent, global and objective view into the total realm of social video and that there is no better way to gain insight into the immense diversity of video topics being consumed and shared across the major social platforms than by using Tubular.”
Williams, who came to Condé Nast Entertainment in November after holding senior leadership roles at BET and MTV, said he believed that about 70% of video content should be “informed by data.” Then, 20% should be educated guesses based on what an editorial team thinks would resonate with people. The last 10% should be “moonshots” or passion projects.
“I see data as a tool,” Williams said. “It’s something that informs your decision process but is not an end-all, be-all.”
But a more subjective conversation about Megan Thee Stallion still resulted in a rejection, according to two producers, one current and one former. After Condé Nast Entertainment’s talent team pitched the musician as a subject in the spring of 2019, the programming team rejected the rapper as being “urban” and “not our audience,” the two producers said.
“They try to promote this culture of being ultraprogressive, but the only people who looked like me were the cleaning staff,” said one former employee, who identifies as a person of color.
Williams said one of the most-watched videos of 2019 featured Cardi B in her grandmother’s apartment in the Bronx, New York. A Condé Nast representative pointed to several other series and documentaries the studio produced, including a New Yorker documentary on a 2015 South Korean ferry disaster, and a Glamour series showing what the same piece of clothing looked like on women wearing sizes 0 through 28.
The group around Sabia and Edgar, which determines nearly every Condé-produced video, also has its own language. “Scalability,” “elevation,” and “what does episode 20 look like?” are common phrases.
Getting into the development team is the ultimate coup at Condé Nast Entertainment. About 30 folks have pulled it off — and they’re predominantly white, employees said. (Condé Nast Entertainment said that “more than 25%” of the team identify as people of color and that more than half are women.)
“Some people feel like they don’t speak the language of the team,” an employee involved in series development said. “‘If you can’t speak like us, you can’t get in the room with us’ — it feels discriminatory in a way.”
Williams said he was helping to develop tools so that those outside the development team could pitch videos. The goal, he said, is to add more people of color to that team.
Condé goes ‘cookie cutter’
As recently as 2014, Condé Nast counted print ads as 80% of its revenue, according to a feature on the company by New York magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman published in October. Five years later, 60% of revenue comes from everything but print. Video is especially promising.
WWD reported last year that video was expected to be 11% of 2019 revenue, quoting Lynch as saying in an internal meeting that “we’re just scratching the surface.” But as Condé Nast looks to YouTube — and the sort of audience YouTube reaches — for cash, its iconic brands are changing.
Wired’s “Google Autocomplete interview” series, in which celebrities answer the most-searched questions about them, seems like an odd fit for a magazine whose mission is to illuminate “how technology is changing every aspect of our lives.” Rick Martinez, a Bon Appétit contributor, previously described the brand’s YouTube fare as “base,” because of its emphasis on foods like mac and cheese and baked potatoes.
Even some Vogue staffers scoff at the exalted “73 Questions,” sources said, as those videos rarely discuss high fashion.
Videos that don’t hit the 10-minute mark in their first edit are sometimes appropriately padded so that Condé Nast Entertainment can run midroll ads during the video, resulting in an abundance of videos that are 10 minutes and a few seconds. Of the past 10 videos published on Vogue’s YouTube page, five are 10 minutes and a few seconds over.
Brands pay to get shouted out in videos, New York magazine reported, as when Hailey Bieber interrupted her “73 Questions” interview to order from Postmates. Bon Appétit has become one of Condé Nast’s most lucrative brands because of how easy it is to do sponsored content while cooking.
These tactics help Condé Nast secure new revenue. But some fear what Sabia’s and Edgar’s machine will do to the company, a publisher ostensibly devoted to journalism and storytelling, rather than twee celebrity interviews.
“When you pressure people to create things that are going to, quote, ‘scale’ and sell to an advertiser, you end up getting a lot of mediocre shit,” said Thompson, the former Iris deputy editor. “You end up flattening storytelling, which is the whole point of Condé Nast. It gets flattened into a cookie cutter.”
A telling moment for many was during a company meeting last year, early on in Lynch’s tenure as CEO. Employees asked what his favorite series was.
He dodged the question.
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