Under normal circumstances, Ariel Horn and Ben Kusin would be at 3 World Trade Center right about now, wielding an oversized pair of scissors, ready to cut an equally outsized ribbon, to symbolically open the New York studio for their new technology and media venture. Venn will be a video game news and entertainment network — a kind of Cheddar, but for gaming, esports and related entertainment content.
"Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth," quipped Kusin, channeling Mike Tyson, in an interview with Protocol this week.
Horn and Kusin, both video game industry veterans, had plans to go live with Venn by the end of the summer, with studios in Los Angeles and New York. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the duo had to shift gears. But instead of postponing their launch plans, they actually accelerated them to respond to skyrocketing demand for both streaming entertainment and video gaming while everyone is hunkered down at home. "It's become evident that our audience really needs this type of entertainment," Kusin said. "We decided to launch Venn beta."
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Venn will launch in July. Now, the two co-founders and co-CEOs have to figure out how to build a TV network from self-isolation, and launch it into a world that may or may not still be on lockdown this summer. "It's a technical challenge, but also an ethical one," Horn said, explaining that the company was looking for ways to keep both contributors and operational staff safe.
A TV network for people who prefer to watch Twitch
Venn first emerged from stealth last September, when Horn and Kusin announced that they had raised a $17 million seed round of funding, with plans to launch a TV network for an audience that doesn't watch much regular TV anymore. With a mix of esports, gaming news and video game-related entertainment, the network wants to appeal to Twitch viewers and gamers alike.
With that audience in mind, Venn is also foregoing traditional cable deals in order to embrace streaming. The company is talking to both traditional cable operators and internet TV services, but also plans to go live online, and repackage some of its content for social networks.
Venn's biggest challenge will be to produce something that's appealing to its core audience, while at the same time standing apart from all the other content already available on Twitch, Mixer and other similar services. To this end, the company is looking to work with top gaming talent and other celebrities and has brought on former Fullscreen director Aaron Godfred as its senior vice president of development.
Venn's original plan had been to air some 55 hours of live content per week, much of it produced in its Los Angeles and New York studios. However, in recent weeks, New York became the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., and the company won't have access to its New York space for the foreseeable future. The Los Angeles studio is fully operational, and housed in a live production studio complex that's been used by networks like HBO, Nickelodeon and Freeform in the past. However, it's still unclear how much it can be utilized once Venn's launch date arrives. "We don't know when they can come back into the studio environment," said Horn.
Plan B: A distributed workforce, and a studio in a box
That's where plan B comes in: Come July 1, Venn will launch in beta, with 30-some hours of live programming per week. Much of that programming will be produced by talent at home, and some of it will include existing footage licensed from Twitch streamers, repackaged in a more TV-like fashion. Think motion graphics, better video quality, tighter cuts.
Gaming TV network Venn sent its talent a studio in a box to prepare for remote broadcasts.Photo: Courtesy of Venn
To build out its remote production workforce, Venn started sending care packages to some of its talent in recent days: lights, a better camera and a connection kit, all sandwiched into a Pelican case — a studio in a box, if you will. The plan, for now, is to have talent shoot their feeds remotely, and then have some folks in the Los Angeles production space help tie it all together.
"We will have very few talent in the studio," Horn said, explaining that the company was still trying to figure out how to set up a safe production environment. "It's a matter of how do we do it the right way?"
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As Venn looks to launch out of lockdown, much of the media world has moved to a plan that looks quite similar. News anchors and late-night hosts are moderating their shows from their living rooms, and the guests who would typically debate each other in the studio now do so via Skype and Zoom. Kusin joked that much of this programming already looks like esports.
As for Venn, the company plans to announce talent and distribution deals in the coming weeks. It also just signed on Kroenke Sports as a new investor and is in the process of raising a Series A round of funding — all the while the world is on lockdown. Said Kusin: "I can't believe this is happening now, but nevertheless, it is happening."