Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.
Photo: Venn

How not to launch a TV network

Exterior of Venn's LA studios

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week, Next Up covers the lessons Venn executives learned when they launched their online TV network in the middle of the pandemic and Microsoft's latest advances in generating AI voices for every app and brand.


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The Big Story

Esports online TV network Venn gets a bit of a reboot

Launching a TV network in the middle of a pandemic was always going to be an ambitious undertaking. Then again, video game entertainment network Venn thought it had just the right mix for the moment: esports, gaming and video game culture, streaming 24/7 on Twitch, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, while everyone was staying home and thirsty for distractions. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a few things, as it turns out. Almost a year after its initial launch, Venn is in the middle of a reboot of sorts, tweaking its distribution strategy and shifting its focus to shorter-form content. I recently caught up with Venn co-CEO Ariel Horn to talk about those first eight months. "It's been an incredible learning experience," he told me.

  • Not all services are alike. Venn initially distributed its live programming everywhere, which was partially influenced by online news network Cheddar. Turns out that may not have been the best idea. "We made a mistake thinking that we could have one 24-hour channel that could cater to every platform," Horn said.
  • When on YouTube, keep it short. While live programming and hour-long shows worked well on Twitch, it didn't really make a dent on YouTube, where there's a lot more interest in shorter clips. "It made it harder to be nimble and responsive on short-form platforms," Horn admitted. Venn is now looking to change that with more YouTube-friendly content; it also launched specific YouTube channels for key verticals. "We need to focus a lot more on short form," he said.
  • No one likes reruns. Another problem with Venn's focus on high-profile programming was that it was only able to air new shows three days a week, leading to a lot of reruns. With its new focus on shorter programming, Venn can actually air new shows five days a week while spending less, Horn said.
  • Breaking through the noise is hard. Venn started out with the ambition to become a kind of MTV for the video game generation, but didn't exactly have MTV's advertising budget. "The awareness that we had at launch was not as high as we had hoped," Horn said. Now, the network wants to spend six figures on promoting its new shows. "Our content needs to be seen by fans," he said.
  • A studio is important, but expensive. Venn has been producing shows out of its Los Angeles studio, with minimal staffing, talent bubbles, one-way foot traffic signage and all the other things you need to make TV in COVID times. "It definitely is more costly," Horn acknowledged. The company put plans to open up a second studio space in New York on hold for the time being, blaming the pandemic.

But not all has gone wrong for Venn. The network streamed over 100 million minutes of content, at times had 30,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch, and attracted a growing audience on connected TV platforms like the Roku Channel, Samsung TV Plus, LG, Vizio and Plex.

Venn also raised $26 million in late 2020, and Horn told me the company is looking to add more money to its coffers this year. And this week, Venn announced a slate of new shows that it hopes will grow its core gaming audience, and ultimately meet the moment. "The world is very much experiencing cabin fever," Horn said. Launching a new TV network into this world may be incredibly challenging, but it could also be a huge opportunity.

Overheard

"It's on track to be the first mainstream virtual reality headset." —Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, giving a shout-out to the company's Quest VR headset during last week's earnings call.

"Counterpoint to the argument that niche streaming services are doomed: Crunchyroll just surpassed 4 million subscribers." —Bloomberg writer Lucas Shaw putting a spotlight on everyone's favorite anime streaming service.

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82% of leaders will adopt a hybrid-first model in 2021. Preparing the organization for a more complex hybrid workforce introduces complexities that can impact productivity and the employee experience. Explore 5 Steps to Building a Hybrid Workforce to help you develop your return-to-work plan.

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Watch Out

Microsoft wants to take AI voices everywhere

Get ready for every brand and app to have its own voice: Microsoft started to make its custom neural voice product widely available to commercial partners Wednesday, allowing companies to generate their own voices for chatbots and other interactive applications. Custom neural voices are based on Microsoft's Azure AI platform, and use neural networks to create voices that don't have a robotic sound like old-school text-to-speech technology.

The company spotlighted some early high-profile customers:

  • AT&T is using custom neural voice tech to bring Bugs Bunny in its Dallas experience store to life. Customers are being greeted by name, and can chat with the Looney Tunes character while exploring the store.
  • Progressive created a voice chatbot for Flo, the omnipresent face of the insurance brand.
  • Duolingo is using custom neural voice to create multilingual voices for a set of characters meant to bring personality to its language-learning app. Soon, you'll be able to choose whether you'd rather get help with your Japanese lessons from an emo teenager, a video game-loving kiddo who eats too much candy or a speed-talker who thinks she is always right.

To create these voices, Microsoft is asking companies to supply them with speech samples; for AT&T's Bugs Bunny, a voice actor recorded 2,000 phrases and lines. Azure AI then uses two neural networks to turn text into speech that actually pronounces words correctly, and also gets the tone and duration of each and every phoneme right.

Microsoft isn't the first company to use AI for custom voices. Google and Amazon have both generated celebrity voices for their respective assistants in the past, and Amazon recently announced that it would white-label Alexa, complete with custom voices. In October, Toronto-based Resemble AI launched Localize, a service that clones voices to produce translated audio recordings in a number of different languages.

With AI getting better and better at creating voices that are indistinguishable from real recordings, we'll likely also see a whole new wave of deepfake audio. Microsoft, for its part, went out of its way to stress that it is aware of the potential for abuse.

  • The company will limit access to its custom neural voice product to pre-approved partners, who have to contractually agree to a code of conduct.
  • Customers also have to agree to add disclaimers to their applications if consumers could mistake an AI voice for a real person.
  • The company is exploring the use of watermarks to make sure that AI recordings aren't used out of context.
  • Microsoft is also asking voice actors to acknowledge within their recordings that they are knowingly participating in an AI voice project — a safeguard against voice hijacking.

"As creators of this technology, we have an obligation to make sure it's used responsibly," said Azure AI platform VP Eric Boyd. "We're careful with the partners we work with in making sure they follow the guidelines."

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com

Fast Forward

Auf Wiedersehen

I've mentioned before that "The Queen's Gambit" was one of my favorite shows of 2020, and I'm apparently not the only one. Chess boards are selling like hot cakes, Anthropologie is promoting a Beth Harmon look and Chess.com has seen its biggest growth spike in over a decade (it wasn't all me, I swear). However, my favorite thing about this newfound love for chess are fan creations like this Instagram filter that projects chess boards on your ceiling, much like the show's main character visualizes her games. And the best thing: It even works without those green pills.

A MESSAGE FROM BLUESCAPE

Bluescape

82% of leaders will adopt a hybrid-first model in 2021. Preparing the organization for a more complex hybrid workforce introduces complexities that can impact productivity and the employee experience. Explore 5 Steps to Building a Hybrid Workforce to help you develop your return-to-work plan.

Get White Paper

Thanks for reading — see you next week.

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