When The Great Big Story Is Not The News

I’m always fascinated by titles and slogans that are about 180 degrees off. The news business seems good at this. 

“We report, you decide,” is almost totally the opposite of what Fox does, Bill O’Reilly’s  “no-spin zone” actually twirls like Linda Blair’s head. And “Breaking News” on CNN would be defined, at any other time in our electronic media history, as “the news.”  

So when CNN formally unveiled Great Big Story at NewFronts, I was impressed. Because from what they seem destined to deliver, it is a digital platform that will, for sure, present “stories” and from what it looks like, they look interesting, even fascinating, and artful, so “great” seems not a huge stretch.

But...Big? No.

Great Big Story is emphatically, not the great big story of this or any day. It is specifically NOT that. It's just big, like big-interesting.



Though the comparison is made to Vice and even BuzzFeed, a staffer I met said it’s reaching for a smarter, more upscale viewer. It seems a lot more like “CBS Sunday Morning” though  I’m sure that demographically, that’s not the comparison anybody over at CNN (or wherever) would like to make.   

GBS has been around on digital platforms, not your TV remote, in a quiet way since October. You weren’t supposed to know, though there have been a handful of stories.

“Had you heard of us before today?” asked Andrew Morse, a co-founder of GBS, when we spoke.

It was the first time I ever met a start-up executive seemingly pleased by its silent running. GPS largely marketed itself, and got millions of viewers,  by putting videos on social media in places and on subjects that would let the audience find them. They concentrated on getting younger, millennial users (of course) in six big cities. Morse said there were some commercials during a few of the primary season debates.

Otherwise there was minimal promotion. One I saw inserted into a Fast Company story last year was a white-on-black card that read, “Say goodbye to ‘Lists of Grilled Cheese Sandwiches That Look Like U.S Presidents’ “ with the Great Big Story logo under it. Not too subtle, that.

Morse is CNN executive vice president of editorial, who pitched higher ups, including Jeff Zucker the president of CNN Worldwide, on the idea last February.

“The pitch was a disaster,” he recalls. “I mean we ‘had ‘em at hello,’ but there was a lot that had to be worked out.”

It seems odd, I tell Morse, that CNN seems to be emphatic about not being much associated with GBS. Why not call it CNN’s Great Big Story for example?

“Because you say that and immediately, people are thinking Wolf Blitzer and ‘The Situation Room,’ “ Morse says. It would have to conform to an expectation.

Great Big Story is not a “news” platform, essentially. In November, Morse says to illustrate the point, there will be stories that touch on the election, but not stories about the candidates or campaigns or controversies, or probably even stupid hair or pantsuits. Clearly, it won’t be Election Central, though by conventional definition, that will be the great big story.

GBS puts up three to five new stories a day (the one I’ve linked to is a fascinating story about a Utah man who makes crop circle-like designs the mountains of Utah, just by walking, for miles at a time, in snowshoes.) They’re all digital-media sized. There will be no pre-roll, only branded content that fits, and is identified. Hewlett Packard and General Electric are in at the beginning.

“Today is not about CNN, and it's not about news or headlines. It's about something different and truly remarkable,” Zucker said in his remarks at the lunch. “It's about the first company we've launched in 35 years that doesn't boast those three little letters the world knows so well." (That’s true. There wasn’t even a logo in the house.)

Even without real publicity GBS has 40 million multi-platform views per month, and “amassed 6.2 million fans across social and owned platforms. And for every video we produce, 22,000 people like, comment, or share it.”  The average viewer is 27 years old; 80% of the pieces are seen on mobile devices.

Zucker calls Great Big Story a “network” because he seems to see GBS as a stand-alone presence coming soon to connected TVs and mobile streaming services, including Apple TV, Roku and Amazon.

Also coming soon is a series featuring wise advice from Willie Nelson (called “Hey Willie”), a VR travelogue, “Take Me There,” and a show called “Hidden Gems,” fronted by Chris Funk from The Decemberists whose storytelling references would seem to work well within GBS’s self-image. The NewFronts presentation took place in a Houston Street space made to look like a series of electronic campfires with video monitors in the centers and benches surrounding each, circularly.
Millennials, you see, discovered storytelling. Just not these millennials.

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