One of the first stories I ever covered as a fledgling reporter interning for Adweek 35 years ago was about a fringe counterculture magazine that was starting to get some attention with the mainstream media, if not blue-chip brands. The magazine was called High Times and it was devoted to the subject of, well, getting high. If you had told me then, in the “just say no” spirit of the 1980s, that I would one day write an article about a new television network devoted to that very same subject, I would have just said, “What are you smokin’.” As it turns out, that is the name of one of the shows, hosted by actor Eric Roberts, nonetheless, on a network I’m about to tell you about.
The network, dubbed Z420.tv, is the latest in a series of niche Internet TV channels launched by Hollywood producer, talk show expert, and serial digital entrepreneur Michael Zinna. His goal is to make it the “CNBC of Cannabis.” And sure enough, the top of Z420’s home page features a ticker scrolling right to left of stock market symbols -- just like you’d find on CNBC, except these ones are for publicly traded companies making a market out of marijuana.
Most of those companies are involved in the medical marijuana category, which has been legalized in the most number of states, but Zinna and his partners are betting that cannabis blossoms into a mainstream marketplace covering recreational use and the culture and lifestyles associated with that.
Not surprisingly, the network features lots of talking heads, including some well-known celebrities associated with cannabis culture, talking about, well, the culture of cannabis. Most of the advertisers on the channel feature endemic products such as vapes, pipes and paraphernalia associated with smoking dope, but Zinna believes Z420 has carved out an important niche in a category that’s just waiting for the “Starbucks of sativa,” the “Marlboro of marijuana,” or the “Johnnie Walker of ganja” to come along.
If this sounds like a stoner’s dream come true, you should know that Zinna claims he has never smoked pot and never plans to. He’s just a media entrepreneur eyeing a new marketplace on the cusp of explosive growth. And unlike what happened when Prohibition ended in the U.S. in the1930s, there are no equivalents to the national or global liquor brands that existed at that time.
Meanwhile, Zinna is focused on courting other mainstream lifestyle brands interested in, as Z420’s motto says, “taking the high road.” He’s already gaining interest from fast-food, snack food and soft drink brands that apparently see potential in a stoner marketplace known for getting the munchies.
In the following Q&A, Zinna explains why the time is right for a television network devoted to the culture of cannabis.
MediaPost Weekend: Why did you decide the timing was right for this marketing niche?
Michael Zinna: I lived in Colorado for 20 years and when marijuana legalization started to take off, you could just see it was something waiting to happen. I’ve never used marijuana in my life. I’ve never used it once. I’m not a recreational user in any way, but it’s hard to deny the positive social impact that it has on so many different people.
So when it passed in Colorado and Washington picked it up and it started to make its way across the country, it was like Prohibition had been lifted, and you could see from a business standpoint, that’s where it was all going.
MW: So there was a market, and a market need, and you’re just looking to fill it with an Internet-based television network. How are you formatting that?
Zinna: It’s all video. We don’t do any podcasts. And we do about 20 hours of lifestyle content a week, which will go up to 60 hours weekly in the next couple of months. We are fortunate enough to have relationships with a lot of celebrities who are no longer concerned with being associated with or affiliated with cannabis, because it has become a mainstream lifestyle.
MW: So it’s a combination of lifestyle, political and business discussions, but other than the financial tickers, there’s not a lot of hardcore business news on there right now? Why are you calling it the “CNBC of cannabis?”
Zinna: I’m actually negotiating now with a guy who is what I would call a [CNBC “Mad Money” host] Jim Cramer-type guy who wants to do a money-based show on the business of cannabis. He’s an expert in venture capital and specializes in venture capital for cannabis companies. He’s that guy. He’s going to be the “Jim Cramer of pot.”
MW: Sometimes I wish Jim Cramer would smoke a joint, because he seems a little too wired up.
MW: The thing about Prohibition is there already were national liquor brands around at that time. But there really aren’t national marijuana brands right now. So who are the advertisers for this? What’s your advertising base?
Zinna: It is a national marketplace, because marijuana may not be legal in every state, but it is certainly consumed in every state. But our advertisers are endemic and they are in the marijuana business and they produce products associated with marijuana, but we are also seeing interest from brands that I would not call a cannabis company. They just want to target that demo.
For example, Jack in the Box. They do a lot of fringe advertising. Or Carl’s Jr., or a soft drink company, or snack food companies like Frito-Lay. They recognize that people who smoke marijuana eat certain types of food or drink certain types of drinks. And there’s really no way if you’re a sponsor in that category to get in the market without a company like ours. There is a well-known Web site like High Times and the like, but they’re really about the culture and the recreational use of marijuana than anything else. We want to target the mainstream segment of marijuana. If you want to attract a mainstream advertiser like a Carl’s Jr., or a Jack in the Box or a 7up, we are a better fit.
MW: Can you give examples of what some of the endemic advertisers are?
Zinna: Smoking paraphernalia like pipes and vapes. But we’re also seeing demand from gambling sites and poker Web sites and things like that, which are still considered a vice, but are becoming mainstream.
MW: You mentioned High Times, who do you compete with?
Zinna: The answer is we don’t have any competition. There are tons of amateurish Web sites and blogs out there, but nobody really does the kind of online broadcasting featuring live content with celebrities the way we do.
MW: Mainstream networks like CNBC have been doing a lot of programming related to marijuana, so the mainstream media must be interested in this too?
Zinna: That’s true. It’s part of covering an emerging marketplace for them. But they can’t build an entire network around it. And as long as the federal law is in conflict with what a lot of states are making legal, you’re not going to see a major broadcast company jump in and do what we do, because they’re all big, public companies. They would have a difficult time if they started to program a lot of marijuana content, so we’re basically the only game in town until legalization is standardized throughout the country.
MW: So is the talk format the most logical format for the subject? Your network is pretty much based on people talking about marijuana.
Zinna: We have a lot of long-form stuff, but we’re also ramping up our short-form content of about a minute or so. Eric Roberts is doing some short-form content for us called, “What We’re Smoking.” And we’re getting ready to launch a syndicated package in which we place our player and our celebrity content on other marijuana-related Web sites. There’s a big appetite for short-form video content and it’s easily monetized and fairly inexpensive to produce if you know how to do it. The long-form content is interesting, but we really make our money on the short-form stuff.
MW: As long as you’re going into syndication, are you looking to build an ad network of marijuana-related sites out there?
Zinna: Absolutely. We’ll continue to expand our portfolio of owned-and-operated sites, as well as our distributed content. We’re probably the only production company specializing in marrying cannabis and celebrities and creating short-form content around it. There are some other cool things out there. Snoop Dog has some cool stuff.
MW: Unlike Snoop, you say you’ve never smoked pot?
Zinna: Never. Not once. I don’t drink either, but I see a marketplace for it.