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Feature: How Jukin Media Built a Viral-Video Empire

In order to meet this demand for fresh content — a demand created by the process that supplies it — Jukin scales idle browsing to industrial proportions. A researcher, on average, watches 200 clips daily. That’s a thousand videos each week, or 50,000 per year, give or take. The company’s research is aided by proprietary software called Riff, which generates feeds based on niche viral keywords. Maybe you’ve seen 15 or 20 good videos of babies tasting lemons for the first time, or troops surprising mothers at Christmas, or dogs and parakeets becoming unlikely friends. A Jukin researcher has seen these, too, plus all the duds that never made it to your feed.

Photo

Ricardo Marquez, audience-development director of Jukin Media.

Credit
Holly Andres for The New York Times

Of those 200 reviewed on a typical day, perhaps three or four may be good enough to license, generally for a fee between $50 and $5,000, and often a revenue split. Researchers contact clip owners by any means necessary — usually through YouTube or Facebook but occasionally over dating sites, or wherever else they can be found. In all, the company has paid out more than $10 million in royalties to video owners.

Back in the conference room, Pitch 11 was underway. A woman onscreen was bucked from a horse, and Trunfio, not quite satisfied, assigned the clip a C. I had asked across the table about grading criteria and was told it boiled down to three factors: content, length and “just how funny it is, more or less.” Though Riff might dig up the clips, only a human can assess their potential for virality. It’s a collaborative process — algorithm and millennial, hand in hand — that may offer a preview of what’s to come for the creative class. The work is novel less for its output than for the peculiar skill set demanded to produce it: deftness at trawling the depths of the internet on one hand, and an acute understanding of contemporary tastes on the other. If this work doesn’t sound like real work, that’s only because, in so many ways, it blurs the line between leisure and labor — whether spatially, with perks like Ping-Pong and kegs, or productively, with tasks that mimic procrastination. Workers like these do for a living what the rest of us do to avoid our work, and they do it so that we might keep avoiding work. Every time you tweet, click a link or share a meme, you play some small part in making jobs like this real.

As I pondered the stakes of this new kind of labor, the conference room groaned, interrupting the daydream. A gymnast onscreen had smashed his face on a balance beam. Trunfio allowed himself a smile.

At 33, Jukin Media’s founder and chief executive, Jonathan Skogmo, is among the older employees of his company, but the origin of Jukin is a story of youth. In 2005, Skogmo was just out of college, a film-school grad who moved to Los Angeles and ended up temping, eating ramen and working odd jobs. On days off he mowed lawns and tended house for Sandi Spreckman, a producer and co-creator of “Judge Judy.” Through Spreckman, Skogmo landed his first real gig in the industry, a research job on a pilot for the clip show “Country Fried Home Videos.” Even into the mid-aughts, after the arrival of broadband, clip shows sourced content almost exclusively via videocassette, through a method popularized by Vin Di Bona, creator of the ur-clip show “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” With the Di Bona method, clips were solicited mainly via onscreen calls to action, which pleaded with viewers to mail in Handycam footage. Skogmo’s job on “Country Fried” was to haul the tapes and DVDs from the P.O. box and hunt through them for actually funny material. Some producers there were around twice his age. As they sat at their desks “waiting for the mail,” he took to the internet, looking for clips.

If this seems like an obvious move, then you’re misremembering the internet of 2005. In the era when Skogmo was opening padded mailers at “Country Fried,” MySpace was still three years from peaking, and Facebook wasn’t open to nonstudent users. Video streaming was an imperfect technology. Total lack of industry standardization left consumers juggling a mishmash of fickle protocols like RealMedia and Macromedia Flash. Early viral hits like “Star Wars Kid” (2003) were downloaded from peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa. This could take hours and often felt seedy. When Skogmo found anything that was suitable for broadcast, he was faced with the issue of tracking down an owner. Content, in those days, seemed to come from nowhere.

This all changed for Skogmo in 2006, when he found YouTube, which was created a year earlier. He was impressed by the trove of family-friendly content, but even more so by the ease with which he could contact creators directly and negotiate the contracts that “Country Fried” required. Soon he became the online licensing whiz kid. When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in 2007, he says, demand increased for unscripted programs, including clip shows. By 2009, Skogmo had started what would become Jukin from his apartment.

Today at Jukin’s headquarters, spread across 18,000 square feet, researchers sit arranged in long rows, plugged into headphones, scrolling through feeds. The factory-farm comparison is hard to resist — young workers pumped not for their milk but for their discerning taste in content. Before coming to Jukin, the researchers studied English, or media production, or double-majored in playwriting and mass communications. After graduation, they worked in television production, or for start-ups, or as editorial fellows at The Huffington Post. Like other jobs tied to the cycles of social media — say, tweeting for brands or aggregating tweets for BuzzFeed — clip research involves skills that are less taught through training than osmosed as a consequence of youth. An eye for picking the next viral hit demands not just fluency in the tastes of the day but also the ability to intuit the ever-evolving zeitgeist as it warps and flows across social media. I asked Nate Granzow, manager of targeted acquisitions, which type of experience best qualifies a researcher.

“We have hired people who’ve done that archival research stuff, and that tends to be something that helps,” he said. “But generally they just need to be good at” — he paused for a moment — “they have to be sitting on Facebook all the time.”

Jukin has clip researchers on two continents and in three time zones. The Los Angeles headquarters runs three staggered shifts, so that if a clip picks up speed in the middle of the night, Jukin can acquire it before it’s viral in the morning. Jukin also owns YouTube channels, which it uses to promote its licensed clips to subscribers, and if you include the views from the company’s Facebook pages, these draw around two billion views each month.

Its most successful clips tend to fall into one of three genres: “cute,” “fail” and “win.” “Cute” is dancing toddlers, puppies and clumsy kittens, anything involving that optimal eye-size-to-head-size ratio. “Fail” is whatever tenses the shoulders in empathy — wipeouts, face plants, schemes gone awry. I’m told the best fails are those that fail in unexpected ways, denying Chekhov’s gun — e.g., the skateboarder doesn’t eat it on the ramp, but then a guy in the background is kicked in the nuts. “Win” is whatever affirms faith in humanity, so women giving birth in cars and on airplanes, and also people catching marshmallows in their mouths from far away. As Skogmo puts it, viral clips have global appeal because they’re “language agnostic” and don’t demand a common tongue. They are a wordless lingua franca built on dirt-bike accidents and things exploding in microwaves.

Photo

Jonathan Skogmo, founder and chief executive of Jukin Media.

Credit
Holly Andres for The New York Times

Runaway hits often hybridize these tropes, combining and expanding on what makes them successful. When “Brothers Convince Little Sister of Zombie Apocalypse” came through Riff on Monday, April 11, Ryan Toomes, Jukin’s director of acquisitions, knew it could go the distance. The clip had it all: a zombie prank, a hidden dash cam and a victim loopy from dental anesthetic. It was uploaded to YouTube at 2 p.m. E.S.T., and Jukin owned the rights by the close of the California workday.

It wasn’t hard for Toomes to track down the creator. Cabot Phillips had already licensed another clip to Jukin, a prank involving a fake proposal gone wrong. This type of repeat business is uncommon to say the least. Virality tends to favor the accidental and organic. A hit is rarely just funny; it must also be funny in a way that’s distinct and surprising. Self-conscious attempts at reverse engineering are almost always an embarrassing flop. Brands try constantly to manufacture virality, but viewers don’t give shares to copycats or fakers. Even the researchers themselves, armed with countless hours of screen time and troves of robust data, doubted their own ability to script a viral hit. What happened to Phillips was lightning-strikes-twice rare.

After some negotiation, Toomes offered a cash payout for the rights, plus a 70-30 split of any proceeds in Phillips’s favor. In the end, the video was featured on “Ellen,” on which Phillips and his family won a trip to Mexico. The prank appeared on CBS, ABC, USA Today and nearly every major outlet that treats viral content like news. The clip drew thousands of dollars in revenue for Jukin and Phillips and drove more viewers to the upload on YouTube, where more revenue was earned by running ads against the clip. The video, to date, has more than 22 million views. Phillips declined to disclose his exact windfall, but he said it will go toward college for Millicent, his sister and the obliging victim of the zombie attack.

What’s novel about businesses like Jukin, those that thrive inside the cycles of social media, is that they’re built atop products created by amateurs. Without a guy to film himself falling down the stairs, it’s very unlikely we would have clip-research jobs, Jukin or even YouTube. But Jukin’s existence performs a strange sort of alchemy, retroactively transforming these pratfalls into some kind of labor. Stranger still is the fact that the process itself — watching YouTube for hours on end — hardly looks like labor at all.

But this process, multiplied over roughly 150 videos per week, is how Jukin has taken virality — a formerly random and far-reaching process — and channeled it into a closed network of its own making. Clips are acquired based on reliable parameters, then pushed out for licensing to websites and broadcasters — far-reaching vectors that drive a controlled spread. Viral, in the Jukin sense, is less a result of an organic process than a replicable formula, defined only by tropes and a looming expiration date. Toomes said Phillips’s clip was a definite hall-of-famer, putting it alongside Pizza Rat and Peanut Butter Baby.

Photo

Kyle Peters, content-promotion director of Jukin Media.

Credit
Holly Andres for The New York Times

“It probably lasted around two weeks,” he said. “Which is actually quite long compared to viral videos these days.”

On top of all the researcher workstations at Jukin, there are silver-mirrored call bells like those you’d find at a concierge. When a hot clip comes in and the license is secured, a researcher is encouraged to ring his or her bell, in the hope that the whole office will share in the momentum. It’s an old sales-office tradition, appropriated for a new era — much like the Jukin licensing scheme itself. Away from the chiming, in another glass fishbowl, I sat down with the directors Kyle Peters and Dustin Pagliughi. “It’s a huge rush,” Peters said of the process. “I’ve sometimes equated it to the stock market in terms of: ‘We have got to buy, buy, buy. Let’s get this now, now, now.’ ”

“Everybody gets excited,” Pagliughi added. “You see people perk up.”

Pagliughi, director of special projects, has been with Jukin for about two and a half years. He has a background in television production, which allowed him to enter the company as a manager. But even clip researchers right out of college often level up from scrolling and watching clips to managing their own teams of scrollers and watchers. In an industry that works in tandem with the algorithmic whims of Facebook and YouTube, however, who can say what such progress might be worth in the long-term scheme of a career?

While some at Jukin compare the frenetic, acquisitive energy there to that of Wall Street, that doesn’t fully capture the persistence of digital media: The N.Y.S.E. closes at 4 p.m., but the trading floor at Jukin is technically always open — a fact of many new jobs tied to online sharing. Old structures like business hours and the workweek seem laughable in light of the always-on cycle of social media. Jukin has managed to create a sense of purpose in what might otherwise resemble a digital myth of Sisyphus. Retention rates at the company are high, and management tends to promote from within.

Pagliughi, in the conference room, seemed energized by the pace of the job. The excitement of finding new content still satisfied him.

“I find myself, even when I go home, looking at clips,” he told me. Outside the fishbowl, his co-workers scrolled on, working their way through infinite feeds.

“You’re not burned out on it?” I asked.

“It’s part of my life,” he said.

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