Once a newspaper, The Onion is growing its video ambitions

The Onion began as a free weekly paper, but its future increasingly lies in video.

Within the next six weeks, the satirical publisher plans to launch a studio arm, according to Mike McAvoy, president and chief operation officer at the Onion. The launch of Onion Studios will include a new slate of video programming, a site dedicated to video across the Onion’s properties (including the A.V. Club and Clickhole), new video hires and opportunities for outside talent to collaborate on video projects with the media company. Onion Studios represents a formalization of the company’s video business and a full embrace of a distributed media landscape.

“The business opportunities are obviously super-interesting, whether it’s selling shows to networks or licensing content to other platforms to broaden our overall reach,” said McAvoy. “The starting point is to create great video content in more ways than our existing sites [already do]. But what’s really exciting is incubating ideas we like digitally that can then be sold to networks.”

The Onion produces around 40 videos per month poking fun of cable news, the tech industry and popular culture at large. One of its popular series is “Film Standard,” in which the Onion’s fake film critic Peter K. Rosenthal lampoons the latest Hollywood hits. In rants that grow increasingly absurd, Rosenthal criticizes Christian Grey’s sex dungeon in his “Fifty Shades of Grey” review — because the average American’s sex dungeon is not nearly as lavish — and argues his own fantasy universe is better than Tolkien’s in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

All that material originates inside the Onion’s Chicago headquarters, but the company now intends to work with writers, directors and producers outside its 1,000-square-foot studio space and 20-person video staff. Historically, the Onion has passed on those external collaborations because the projects would appear outside its core properties, said McAvoy. But that’s not a problem in today’s platform-driven world of media consumption, one where the Onion earns 90 percent of its ad revenue through Onion Labs, its in-house content agency, with only a fraction coming from standard display and video pre-roll advertising.

“The larger we can grow our video distribution, the more valuable that Labs content becomes in the world,” McAvoy said.

Onion Labs has produced articles and video content for around 150 brands, including Burger King, Honda, Bud Light and Lenovo, which flock to the company for its comedic expertise. And when advertisers don’t get the joke, they can work with the A.V. Club, the Onion’s entertainment and pop culture publication.

“Some of the videos produced by Labs are so good they not only get shared but they also start to take on a life of their own, because they get replicated and iterated on,” said Martin Cass, CEO of Media Assembly, a media planning and buying agency. “Any successful campaign today is about how you stimulate the social network in a way that continues to make your idea grow and become bigger and bigger.”

The main Onion site attracted more than 1.6 million unique video viewers on U.S. desktops alone in February, according to comScore. The Onion also has a prominent YouTube presence, where its primary channel boasts 800,000 subscribers and over 2.7 million monthly views, according to YouTube analytics platform OpenSlate. The Onion has been uploading videos directly to Facebook as well, where it saw an average view count of 700,000 views per video in February, according to an Onion spokesperson.

The Onion is also experimenting with additional distribution channels for its content. It launched a Snapchat handle last week. It’s running a test with BitTorrent, which is extending its BitTorrent bundles platform into video. And a large publisher is going to post some of the Onion’s videos on its site, a first for the company, according to Hassan Ali Khan, the Onion’s svp of marketing. That will begin with archival videos but may extend to more recent content as the partnership develops.

“On the Internet, all content will eventually live side by side,” said Ali Khan. “Success is just a matter of being able to appeal to the broader taste without selling your soul.”


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