Having already blossomed as a newspaper, Web site and book publisher, The Onion – perhaps the most dominant provider of fake news anywhere – is bringing its brand of humor to the hot medium of the moment: Online video.
The dispatches on the Onion News Network, which goes live Tuesday, aren’t likely to be causing much missed sleep over at CNN and Fox News Channel, unless those outlets start covering fake news stories like Civil War re-enactors being dispatched to Iraq.
But on the Web, The Onion will be going up against several others who have already established themselves in comedy video, including Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Much of that awareness, however, came from unauthorized clips being viewed on Google Inc.’s YouTube, something that Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom Inc. is suing YouTube over for $1 billion.
Sean Mills, the president of the closely held company that runs The Onion, says he has “some tolerance” for unauthorized use of clips, and is optimistic that the company will reach a mutually beneficial arrangement with YouTube.
Clips from the Onion News Network will also be available for free downloads on Apple Inc.’s iTunes store, and Mills said the company is in talks with other Web companies about possible distribution deals.
In the meantime, The Onion wanted to give its audience as much flexibility as possible, and will allow features that are popular on video-sharing sites such as allowing Web publishers to embed clips into their blogs.
“We want as many people to see our news reports as possible,” Mills said. “We can work out a deal with YouTube when they’re ready.”
The Onion’s network will start out with two new video clips per week, supported by ads. An in-house staff of eight people will work on the videos, which have a professional look to them despite the buffoonery being discussed, such as a top-level technology executive who is forced to sell his estate and take a job managing a TGI Friday’s after his job goes to an illegal immigrant.
Scott Dikkers, one of the founders of The Onion who returned about two years ago and is now its editor, says the company is frequently approached with offers to do television shows but so far has turned them all down.
“What makes The Onion what it is is that it’s a totally uncensored voice. If you go through a network filter, you get a totally different vibe,” Dikkers said. “I don’t need someone to tell me what I can’t do.”
While the subject matter of the videos is sure to be funny, based on samples reviewed ahead of the launch, it’s also a real business that a number of advertisers have already signed up for, including Dewar’s Scotch, Hyundai and Red Stripe Beer. Mills said he expects the online video operation to become profitable by the end of the year.
All this comes as The Onion’s print publications continue to expand. In early April it will launch an edition in Washington, its 11th, bringing its total weekly circulation to just over 700,000. The Washington Post Co. is providing printing, distribution and help with advertising sales in the Washington edition in exchange for a share of revenue.
Its print publications remain profitable, but The Onion is moving more and more toward the Web, where it now draws about 60 percent of its advertising revenue versus 40 percent from print, about the reverse of where it was four years ago, Mills said.
And while The Onion is happy to indulge its audience with a lot of flexibility over how and where to view its new video product online, its patience isn’t unlimited.
“If 98 percent of viewing is on YouTube, we need to figure out how to support that,” Mills said. “I think they’re motivated to make it work for people like The Onion who make the content.”