On Thursday, First Look Media, parent company of The Intercept and Press Freedom Defense Fund, quietly launched a $5.99-per-month streaming service called Topic, throwing its hat into the now comically overcrowded ring of OTT offerings.
Topic is home to original shows and movies, mini-documentaries, and news shorts, plus a small number of licensed content, like both seasons of the British version of “The Office.” Topic’s home screen currently touts original programming like “Monogamish,” “Philharmonia,” “Honour,” “Invisible Heroes,” “Pagan Peak,” “Blind Donna,” and “Miriam’s Big American Adventure.”
You likely haven’t heard of many (or any) of those. But First Look Media CFO Drew Wilson argues that First Look’s devoted readers have—and that’s why Topic can succeed.
“We are a niche channel,” Wilson says. “And the behaviors of niche audiences are very different from the aggregators, the big channels. We know who our audience are, and we’ve spent the last three years getting to know our audience, and they like the content we make. We know what they want. And they’ve already engaged with us for the last three years. [Topic] is just providing the next level of access to our content to them.”
While First Look Media’s news side is a nonprofit, the entertainment side is a for-profit business. And Wilson tells Yahoo Finance that Topic only needs “less than a half a million subs” to be profitable. “We don’t need to be in 80 million households,” he says. “It’s a tiny amount of subs required to make this engine run profitably.”
To be sure, some might say that 500,000 is still not a “tiny” number when you’re trying to convince people to shell out for yet another subscription.
First Look, which was founded and funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, does have a track record in Hollywood production. The company co-financed the movies “Spotlight,” “Leave No Trace,” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Wilson says, “We have spent the last three years cultivating and speaking to our audiences, through our journalism and through our studio, successfully.” First Look’s reporting and stories, Wilson says, can “create formats we can produce into television and film.”
‘Programming for niche audience’
Media critics might see some irony in First Look marketing its streaming service by touting its journalism, because the company has recently made some cuts to its journalism as part of its focus on the video product. In March, First Look cut 4% of its staff, which included layoffs at The Intercept. In June, First Look announced it would shut down Topic magazine (from which the streaming service takes its name) and stop funding The Nib, a widely-praised political cartoon site.
New York Magazine reported that many remaining editorial staffers feared the company “had acquired, or planned to acquire, a smutty Netflix clone.” Thus: Topic.
A similar series of events happened to Sporting News, the 133-year-old American sports publication, after it was sold to Len Blavatnik’s Perform Group a few years ago. Perform cut journalists and shifted the company’s strategy to focus on DAZN (“da zone”), a live sports OTT offering that aims to be the Netflix of sports. It eventually renamed the whole company DAZN Group.
Topic has no intention of trying to compete with Netflix or jumping into the wild spending race unfolding across cable and tech right now for original content.
“That is not our lane,” Wilson says. “We are programming specifically to our niche audience. We are not programming as a general entertainment site, that’s not what this is.”
In fact, Wilson optimistically argues that it’s the middle-tier cable giants who will lose in the streaming wars. “Our view is that there will be a category of large players who will win—Disney+, Apple, Amazon, Netflix—and then there’s going to be this category of niche players,” he says. “Those two groups can exist very nicely together. The guys in the middle, who are non-distinguished channels who are making premium content, but they’re a cable channel who thought they had a relationship directly with the consumer but now realize it’s a much harder proposition, will struggle. Because that is a commodity decision between that and the large aggregators.”
Still, even as First Look seeks to embrace its niche, it is asking people to pay another $5.99 monthly fee for another content platform. It’s still competing with the big dogs for share of wallet.
Wilson retorts that for the type of consumers who shell out for Topic, “It’s a passion for them, it’s not just a source of entertainment.”
Daniel Roberts is a senior writer and show host at Yahoo Finance and closely covers media and streaming. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.