May 20, 2016

The floor of the New York Stock Exchange was in its typical mild frenzy as the financial news co-anchor announced that Microsoft was selling a phone operation for $350 million.

“Who even knew they were in the phone business?!” her co-host declared facetiously, turning toward some disembodied voice off-set and openly inquiring, “Are we going to talk about the Facebook-conservatives meeting?”

This isn’t your parents’ CNBC. Can you imagine one of its button-down anchors introducing the head of a data analytics group and immediately inquiring as to how they were going to discuss programmatic advertising “without putting everybody to sleep?”

It’s Cheddar, a startup meant to be a looser, quasi-CNBC for millennials that’s just begun live-streaming on Facebook Live and And if the acerbic co-host, Jonathan Steinberg, seemed a bit forward, why not? It’s his baby.

Steinberg is the former president of BuzzFeed (he joined when they had 14 employees) and CEO of the Daily Mail US who’s been at the forefront of several innovations now incessantly copied, such as native advertising. He’s a sharp, successful digital entrepreneur who at minimum provides a window onto the proliferation of video in the communications future.

Whether he provides a window onto our actual news future — or maybe even a tech bubble — is unclear. But his evolving handiwork is worth checking out.

Cheddar aims to be a very low-cost, more informal CNBC for millennials, focusing on a much narrower range of companies and issues for a TV-wary audience that doesn’t have the time or interest to be staring at anything for very long.

With initial funding of $3 million, it’s opened with a quiet-as-a-churchmouse launch, offering one hour or so of live-streaming coverage for free on Facebook Live and It aims to cut distribution deals to make it onto streaming boxes such as Apple TV and Roku and announced a subscription service at a seemingly pricey $6.99 a month for expanded daily coverage and features.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “The reason everybody is going after it (video) is that television is going away. Just like websites replace papers, we will see the same with TV, too.”

So Steinberg, who’s been a CNBC junkie since he was a kid (and later-in-life frequent guest), labors with a small crew on the stock exchange floor with a far more informal and narrowly targeted coverage mission than CNBC, Fox Business Channel or Bloomberg TV. They don’t have the same bells and whistles, either. Graphics have more of a community access feel than, say, a CNN look. And, technically, it relies on the video platform Vimeo and a computer-driven, cloud-based video technology called Live X to dramatically cut costs of the generally expensive task of live-streaming.

Cheddar focuses on a smaller array of mostly tech companies and stories it deems of specific interest to more upscale millennials. Thus, if the traditional networks are doing Exxon, Federal Reserve board interest rates or interviewing graying Fortune 500 or hedge fund execs, they’re chatting with heads of smaller, lesser-known operations, like a new online service called Thrive Market that’s raised $58 million in investment money and delivers organic foods at a price well below what you’d find at Whole Foods.

Watching it for several days, you might come away with some distinct initial impressions: It’s fresh, smart, freewheeling, at times less iconoclastic than it may crave to be, and perhaps in need of an upgrade in production values. And, in the early days, the audience is small, but total views are still in the thousands (it was 27,000 one day last week)

You won’t hear about Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen but you will get lots on Fitbit or Proper Cloth, a higher-end men’s shirt startup that in part uses algorithms to customize the cut of your shirt as it aims to make it easier to buy custom clothes. It’s the official haberdasher of Cheddar, one of several partnerships (and friendships with interviewees) that Steinberg mentions on air in a reflexively refreshing mode of full disclosure for viewers.

There’s discussion of Fitbit buying a small firm to help with mobile payment. “It says one thing to me,” said Kristen Scholer, a co-host. “They’re trying to compete with Apple Watch.”

Indeed, the focus and seeming expertise on the tech sector, be it big picture or the intricacies of gadgets, is impressive. It melds with decidedly opinionated takes. Should Pandora just find a buyer rather than try to revamp? “A no-brainer,” says Steinberg, deriding its lack of growth and history of losses. “The product hasn’t evolved in years.”

“They’ve been around 16 years and haven’t figured it out,” says Peter Gorenstein, Cheddar’s chief content officer who was hired from Yahoo, standing off to the side both running the show and serving as a frequent on-camera presence. It’s all very intimate and at times jokey in a familial sort of way.

Over several days, there’s sharp conversation on the lack of tech IPOs these days, the annual Google developers conference, the burgeoning virtual reality sector, whether Uber should go public, personnel changes at Microsoft, a firm that provides an online marketplace for wedding preparations, the lack of real data on who listens to podcasts and how the company that makes taser guns for law enforcement is increasingly relying on growth via body cameras and software.

For sure, there is overlap with what you might see elsewhere, like CNBC. The Google conference was an example. If there was a slight difference, it was a seemingly less respectful take by Steinberg and colleagues on the company’s announcements of new products.

They were very much underwhelmed and, in the process, proved engaging as they compared the Google offerings with others. They were disappointed that it didn’t produce a new virtual reality headset, while also being underwhelmed by Allo, a potential competitor of Apple’s Facetime.

Its week ended Friday morning with a lively show and word that Google’s Chromebook laptop had outsold Apple’s Macs for the first time. “It’s another place where Google will rule our lives,” said Gorenstein. “My mother-in-law needs a computer. Instead of getting her confused with Windows 10, I should just get her a Chromebook, right?”

And they then mentioned a new app called SoLike that analyzes your speech patterns, including how often you use “filler words” such as “uh,” “well” and “like.” Steinberg suggested to Scholer that she try it out over the weekend before returning to work Monday, which is also the day that the show goes on Sirius XM satellite radio.

It’s an interesting start for a gambit that Steinberg and I chatted about by phone in the process getting his take on more macro developments in the media.

So what’s the basic Cheddar gameplan and theoretical revenue model? And, at this point, who’s apparently watching?

It is a live video news network. You’d call it a cable channel if it were on a cable system. It starts with the position that the most interesting stories on a given day are changes in technology, media and innovative consumer products, Amazon, Google, Uber Airbnb. We broadcast live on Facebook, where there’s no revenue. But we just announced a subscription premium offering with Vimeo. That’s $6.99 a month for longer and more detailed interviews and field pieces. We did a 20-minute interview with Barry Diller; only about a minute and a half was on the live free show.

To watch a full, deep dive, you need to subscribe. Right now you can go to and see everything. We’re doing north of $1 million in branded content revenue. The real hope is getting the end consumer to pay either directly or part of a bundle. Right now there’s a total of nine employees. Peter Gorenstein came from Yahoo Finance as the chief content officer. Kristen Scholer, the chief anchor, came from The Wall Street Journal and was (reporter) Bob Pisani’s producer on the Exchange floor.

How do you differentiate this from CNBC, Fox Business and Bloomberg TV? And make sure I understand the technology. This is not for folks, really, with cable boxes?

It’s like asking how a sitcom is different than any sitcom. The style and substance is younger and more authentic and laid-back than a traditional news show. The talent is much younger. We won’t do the Fed (Federal Reserve Board) and oil and power stories. And you don’t need cable subscription to watch it.

Live-streamed business news online has been tried before, right? Why hasn’t it worked and why do you see this as having better prospects?

It hasn’t been tried before on Facebook Live. Facebook Live is a game-changer. Huffington Post Live didn’t work because it was too early, or the content wasn’t right. We’re changing the delivery and the content. But there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the category.

It seems everybody and his mother is interested in video. How do you find a niche and monetize it? Is not the cost of production fairly high, too?

I think it’s a huge opportunity. The reason everybody is going after it is that television is going away. Just like websites replace papers, we will see the same with TV, too. You could argue that there’s too much of a race to get just a jillion views in absence of creating quality and monetization. It’s a big opportunity. We don’t expect them to watch a full hour of a live show. We expect them to drop in and out when on their stream. There’s an ambient reality to live programming. As Facebook Live comes to connected televisions, this becomes more of an ambient opportunity. The paid product is for those who want to expense it the way they expense The Wall Street Journal. That’s for the professional audience.

There was an exploding watermelon that got lots of looks over at BuzzFeed, your former home. What’s that say about anything?

I think the lesson from that is that form follows function. It’s an element of Facebook Live. Drama is created through the anxiety of what will happen next. You can’t just copy somebody else. But Facebook Live had created opportunities. People told me I shouldn’t do live. Then when Facebook Live came out, people told me I was a visionary. You have to explore on different platforms.

Traditional print folks, especially newspapers and many magazines, seem very slow into video. What’s that mean for their future?

I’ve met with big, traditional media companies. And I was told how slow their companies operated. They want to talk to me, and then say they can’t do anything. That they operate to too slow. It’s like throwing your hands in the air and saying, “My children are so badly behaved!” Their slowness is more of an organizational thing than an intellectual or competency issue. As companies get big, they accept a kind of inertia that is increasingly problematic, given how fast the world moves. If your company is so slow, it can’t get things done, you have to fix it.

Worldwide, what attempts at attracting millennials do you find even vaguely relevant in trying to capture a slice of that target audience?

Crunchyroll and DramaFever.

What have we missed?

I launched this paid product [a few] days ago and immediately everybody said it’s too expensive, it won’t work. The Wall Street Journal was fairly nice. I don’t know that any given thing will work. When I launched native advertising at BuzzFeed, everybody told me it was a terrible idea. Now they say in hindsight it was great. Only thing I know for certain that doesn’t work is doing what people did five years ago five years later. You have to take shots on hope but ones that are not so expensive, they will blow up the company. Everybody saying let’s copy BuzzFeed and do native advertising. It’s a bit late to be spinning up your branded content studio. Nobody ever knows what the answer is at any given time. When you think you do, start thinking about next answer. Look at what we do, what Skimm is doing with its paid product, at The New York Times with virtual reality. The only way to succeed is to try that happens to be early and works. Then you have several years before everybody copies you.

With bigger, older companies I don’t think it’s a lack of creativity or brainpower. The thing that prevents them is organizational bureaucracy. And other challenge is when you have a lot of revenue, it’s something to protect. That’s an innovator’s dilemma.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

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