Great Big Story Writes Next Chapter on Weather Channel, CNN

Great Big Story, the social-video unit that was supposed to do for CNN what Vice has done for, well, itself, wants to extend its narrative.

When the company launched not-so-quietly in the fall of 2015, it was positioned as a means of getting CNN into a realm increasingly favored by a rising generation of millennial news aficionados: streaming-video vignettes passed from one person to another via mobile devices and social media. Did you see this video about the lady in Greece who paints new marquees by hand whenever the theater runs a new film? Check out this red-sided electus parrot!

But Great Big Story executives think they now see a broader business. “You will see us getting into television. You will see us getting into streaming services. And you will see international reach and growth that I think is going to be significant,” said Chris Berend, the company’s co-founder who is also CNN’s senior vice president of digital video.

Great Big Story’s changing tale is emblematic of the direction of the modern media business: There’s certainly interesting paths ahead, but most of them need to be cleared for smooth travel.  Vice, the upstart news outlet that aims for younger consumers, recently launched a cable-TV outlet it jointly owns with A+E TV Networks. NBCUniversal has invested heavily in both Vox Media and BuzzFeed, and has in recent weeks unveiled initiatives to sell ad inventory in both BuzzFeed and Apple’s Apple News.  CBS Corp. is pursuing a stand-alone video-on-demand service called “All Access” that makes its current and past offerings available to people on the go.

The hope is that Great Big Story will grow as more consumers consider the mobile screen their home one, and as the quality of streaming-video programming rises. Berend predicted the company would reach break-even status sometime in 2017. I think we are long past the days in which everything was just web video with a lower case ‘w’,” said Berend. He wants to keep the company’s options open by functioning as a potential supplier of content for an array of media outlets, he said, rather than building a bigger presence with a stand-alone TV network. “I think it still remains to be seen whether you can grab millennial eyeballs and get them to watch television in the way some are hoping. I think the jury’s still out. That’s a difficult thing to do.”

That doesn’t mean the company isn’t interested in TV. The next chapter for Great Big Story is television, Berend said. “That’s Amazing,” an eight-episode series that looks at interesting stories about the elements, is set to launch next month on Weather Channel. “They reached out to us,” he said. “We quickly got to the root of what we felt like was a really good concept.” Weather Channel executives were impressed by the short films they saw online, and thought GBS could produce something of interest to aficionados of natural phenomena, said Nora Zimmett, the network’s senior vice president of programing. “The quality of the storytelling and the beauty of the video is enough to keep the audience.”

Berend, who in an earlier part of his career held editorial positions at Esquire magazine, believes Great Big Story has developed a reputation for solid short-storytelling about interesting figures and phenomena, with miniature-length video takes that are clearly inspired by the cinematography used in films directed by Wes Anderson. The unit’s short films, which run the gamut from an examination of best friends in China who want to plant 50,000 trees in deforested parts of that country to a brief profile of female “slackliner” Faith Dickey to a truncated history of air fresheners “are just not predictable – in a good way,” he said. “Tell me something I never knew. Show me something I’ve never seen. A story doesn’t get through unless it meets that criteria.”

Great Big Story will also begin to show up periodically on the flagship network of its corporate parent. CNN will show 12 short films by Great Big Story. The run of documentaries, called “Really Great Big Stories,” started with the recent airing of “The Last Steps,” a 20-minute documentary by director Todd Douglas Miller that taps archival footage to explore the 1972 Apollo 17 moon landing – the last time humans took an actual step on a world other than Earth. “Hard Ship,” set to air December 1, examines a challenging boat race to Alaska.

And then there is discussion of what Berend calls a “Great Big Story” variety program that is being prepared for one of the networks within Time Warner’s Turner family – but not necessarily CNN. “It’s very much an off speed pitch for a lot of different places,” said the executive. “We are doing a dozen stories every week. We have more than 600 stories already in our library and virtually none of them expire. This opens up a possibility to create a unique type of program that can last a long time,” he said. He would not comment on which Turner network – Adult Swim? TBS? HLN? – is being considered for the program.

In the year ahead, executives want to attempt to make sure the company’s videos are seen beyond the usual places. “We are expanding just your Facebook page or browsing on YouTube,” said Berend, by pushing distribution in venues like Roku or Apple TV. There is also talk of opening offices in foreign countries.

“This is not an experiment or a vanity project,” said Berend. Great Big Story’s next chapter may not necessarily be found in the videos housed on its own site.

Popular on Variety

More Digital

  • Elite Season 2

    San Sebastian: Spain’s SVOD Players Debate Competition, Brand, Talent

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Executives from HBO, Netflix, Amazon and Movistar+ and “Elite” co-creator Darío Madrona took to the stage to field questions on the Global Impact of Spanish Series. Here, briefly, are five takeaways: 1.Spain First “La Casa de Papel” was watched by 34,355,956 Netflix accounts over its first seven days,  after a July 19 [...]

  • Tinder - Swipe Night

    Tinder's Apocalyptic 'Swipe Night' Interactive Dating Show Sets Release Date

    Tinder next month will bow its first original entertainment content — “Swipe Night,” an interactive adventure series in which viewers are forced to make dating choices on humanity’s last night on Earth. Variety previously reported details of the location-based social network/dating app service’s foray into original content, which recently wrapped production in Mexico City and [...]

  • Editorial Use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    YouTube Rolls Back Verification Changes, Says Verified Creators Can Keep Their Badge

    A day after announcing significant changes to its verification program, YouTube announced Friday afternoon that it won’t be de-verifying existing creators after all. “We heard loud and clear how much the badge means to you,” said YouTube product manager Jonathan McPhie in a blog post. “Channels that already have the verification badge will now keep it [...]

  • BLive: BitTorrent Live Streaming App to

    BitTorrent to Launch Public Beta of New Live Streaming App

    BitTorrent is getting ready to open the floodgates for its new live streaming app, dubbed BitTorrent Live: The company plans to launch a BitTorrent Live Android app on various app stores as part of a public beta test late Friday, according to a spokesperson. BitTorrent Live, which is also known as BLive, is being described [...]

  • Netflix - Apple TV

    Netflix Stock Drops After CEO Acknowledges 'Tough Competition' Coming From Disney, Apple

    Netflix shares fell as much as 7% Friday to a nine-month low, coming after CEO Reed Hastings commented that the November launches of Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus will introduce a “whole new world” of competition. Hastings, speaking at the Royal Television Society conference Friday in Cambridge, England, said, “While we’ve been competing with [...]

  • Facebook

    Facebook Suspends Tens of Thousands of Apps During Privacy Investigation

    Facebook has suspended tens of thousands of apps ever since it began investigating potential privacy abuses, the company said Friday. The apps in question had been built by around 400 developers, and a suspension doesn’t necessarily indicate actual privacy violations. Facebook began combing through millions of apps that made use of its platform after the [...]

  • tivo logo

    Tivo Plans to Launch Android TV Dongle, Tivo+ Curation App

    DVR maker Tivo is getting ready to release a new device that may not record television at all: The company plans to launch a $50 Roku-like TV dongle early next year, its new CEO Dave Shull revealed in a conversation with CNN this week. The new device will be powered by Google’s Android TV platform, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content