Despite the name, CollegeHumor isn’t a spring chicken anymore. Founded in 1999, the comedy site was acquired by IAC in 2006 and grew into one of the most successful video publishers on YouTube.
It also went premium with shows for TV like Adam Ruins Everything, and launched a subscription streaming service called Dropout. But whereas CollegeHumor succeeded in terms content side, business has been another story.
In January, IAC decided it was no longer willing to finance CollegeHumor and laid off more than 100 employees and then sold the business to Sam Reich, who had joined the company in 2006 to build out its original video business.
In his estimation, there’s a helpful paradox at the center of the company’s content strategy. “When we began, it was with what we thought was a really mature thesis for how to run a subscription business: We’re going to a have our acquisition content and our attention content,” Reich said on the Digiday Podcast.
The acquisition content had higher budgets and shorter run time, but in the end, the cheaper, longer-form stuff outperformed it on all fronts.
“In other words, the most expensive content was less effective in getting people in or keeping them there than the less expensive content,” Reich said. “And if that hadn’t been the case, I don’t know that we would have taken over the company.”
Here are highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
Not quite in college anymore
“The CollegeHumor audience in general and AVOD has broadened as time has gone on. When we began producing original content, our core viewership base were in their early 20s. Now thanks to YouTube, we skew both a little bit younger — in the sense of 14-year-olds reading Seventeen Magazine (CollegeHumor’s kind of an aspirational brand for ‘hey, look, I can grow up and have fun and be funny’) — and then also folks who have been with the brand for a long time. So the average is probably like 35. But the most ravenous fan of us is probably between the ages of 20 and 25. We’re about 60-40 male to female, which I think surprises some people who would expect that we would be more male. But even over the course of the last handful of years, we’ve tried to distance ourselves even further from that kind of frat boy image that we would rather not have. That really doesn’t feel like us. We index highly with LGBTQIA folks. There’s a lot of representation on the channels. So I think both on AVOD and subscription, there’s a lot of overlap there.”
Two different stories, zero home runs
“Certainly social media took a huge chunk out of all of these mid-tier publisher businesses. And we can talk about the ethics of that and how it transformed our businesses and so on. Funny or Die — we were in the exact same position at the exact same time: we went YouTube all the way. Funny or Die said ‘no, we’re going to maintain a video player on our own channel,’ and neither of us really won, you know? So kind of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ I think the advantage that we have now is a lot of subscribers, and a loyal audience, which, yeah, can be tricky to monetize. But to the extent we can figure it out, that’s a business.”
When cheaper is better
“We saw this opportunity to sort of right size it. ‘Okay, if the expensive content isn’t moving the needle, maybe that opens up a window for us to do a less expensive version of this.’ And it’s that pitch that we made around town to try to sell CollegeHumor. And it’s only when no one took us up on that offer that I went ‘you know what, I think I believe enough in this to try to do it myself.'”
CollegeHumor isn’t a soldier in the streaming wars
“Netflix, HBO Max, Disney Plus… they don’t scare me in [the] sense [that] I’m not their competition. Arguably, the more truly premium stuff that gets produced by Hollywood for streaming — in other words, the more these services represent the higher echelon of Hollywood — the better it is for us. Because we’re an alternative to that. What we are is scrappy, experimental, weird. And there will continue to be a market for that, especially on the internet, which has historically always celebrated those things.”
A post-Covid renaissance for higher production values?
“We are developing this big catalog right now of content shot by video conference. But if we’re being honest, remote Twitch streams were a thing before all this went down. I think by the time we can be get back into the studio and do stuff that’s of more traditional production value, there will be a kind of a celebration from the community like ‘oh, thank God, I missed this.’ As an audience member, I’m fatiguing of Zoom stuff. We’re trying to find ways to mitigate that feel fun and interesting. With Gamechanger, specifically, the fact that we were shooting remotely meant we could get some talent to the table who otherwise might have not done the show — so we had Tony Hawk do an episode, we had Giancarlo Esposito do an episode. We’re trying to champion ideas and formats that really use the fact that we’re shooting remotely as an asset as opposed to a drawback. But it takes a lot of ingenuity — let’s put it that way.”