• BuzzFeed says some of its original shows like “Worth It” pull in audiences as big as top TV shows.
  • The company is ready to tell that story to advertisers in an attempt to get a slice of TV ad budgets.
  • BuzzFeed’s focus on original shows comes as Facebook rolls out its Watch video hub.

Like many digital-media companies, BuzzFeed would like to steal a piece of the $72 billion US TV ad market. Increasingly, BuzzFeed believes its original web series are pulling in audiences on par with cable TV shows – and it’s ready to tell that story to the ad community.

It’s not an easy story to tell, something BuzzFeed executives acknowledge. TV shows have historically been mostly watched live, web shows on demand. And many people have not traditionally watched web shows habitually, but rather stumble upon them in their social-media feeds.

That difference in viewing habits is reflected in the way TV show audiences are tracked versus web video – and the kind of ad money they can bring in. For example:

  • TV advertisers care about metrics like commercial ratings (how many people watch the ads in a show) and average minute audience (how many people are watching a show at a given moment), which all factor into how TV ads are priced.
  • Web video is usually measured using some sort of raw “view” numbers, which don’t typically factor in length or ad viewership. One view can be recorded for a 30-second video or a 30-minute video.

It’s imperfect at best. A few years ago, Yahoo took some major heat for crowing about getting 15 million people to stream part of an NFL game. It turned out the average audience relative to a typical TV broadcast was more like 2 million people, on average.

Regardless, BuzzFeed believes that its growing slate of originals are approaching TV territory in terms of audience size and viewer loyalty.

Take the show “Worth It,” which feature two buddies comparing meals at high-end restaurants with cheap alternatives (like $13 ribs versus $225 ribs, or $2 New York pizza slices versus $2,000 pizzas). It’s not uncommon for episodes, which run 12 to 16 minutes, to generate 10 million views on YouTube.

To date, the 19 episodes of “Worth It” have accumulated over 280 million views on YouTube and nearly 2 billion minutes of watch time. A 10-episode third season is set to debut August 27. Here’s the season-three trailer.

BuzzFeed TV

Matthew Henick, BuzzFeed’s head of development, said that when BuzzFeed pushed into making original video in 2012, the focus was short videos – 90 seconds or less – designed to be shared on social media. Most videos were self-contained and people them when they found them.

“Early on, we were building a business around ‘non-intentional’ videos, or videos that people were not necessarily seeking out,” he told Business Insider. Think off all those eye-catching videos of someone making a crazy dessert in 30 seconds on Facebook.

“They were trusting an algorithm feed that tries to give you what you want, and they were not necessarily watching them on a BuzzFeed’s channel.

“We didn’t necessarily set out to figure out ‘shows,'” Henick added. “But all of a sudden, over the past six to nine months, both audiences and the audience and platforms have been changing. People are setting aside time for shows and coming back.”

“The platforms have gotten to where they can go with social video, and I think they are realizing now that they are in a fight for incremental money, that $72 billion market.”

It’s early, but BuzzFeed says it is working on an analysis that finds that during the most recent first quarter, “Worth It” would have ranked as a top five cable show among adults between the ages of 18 to 34 and in the top 10 among adults between 18 and 49.

BuzzFeed surveyed the shows’ fans via a Google Consumer Survey in June and found that 60% said they were more likely to watch if they were aware that new episodes were released on a set day and time.

“This show has a broadcast size audience and broadcast viewing patterns,” Henick said.

Some ad buyers, particularly TV veterans, will surely poke holes in that data. But one ad buyer said he believed that advertisers are looking for alternative to TV to reach younger viewers, particularly brand-safe digital content.

A new kind of intentional web show

Steven Lim knows something about how traditional marketers think. His first job out of school was at Procter & Gamble as an engineer working on the Tide Laundry Pods business in 2012 and 2013.

He eventually quit that job and took a swing at becoming a YouTube influencer, an endeavor he says did not go well. But then he posted a video featuring people telling Asian parents that they love them, and it went wild, generating half a million views in its first week. BuzzFeed came calling.

Initially Lim wasn’t sure. “I really wanted to make sure I could make videos featuring Asian-American themes,” he said. BuzzFeed assured him he could, while promising to help him experiment with lots of other formats.

In 2016 he had an idea for a video asking the question about whether taking someone on a date at a super-expensive sushi restaurant was worth it compared to California-roll takeout. In one week it got 10 million views.

So he made a similar video the next week. Then another the following week. By episode four, it was clear the audience loved the concept and “Worth It” was born.

“Food is the ultimate cultural touchpoint. Anybody can relate to it,” Lim said between bites of an off-the-menu, cured-bacon-topped burger at New York’s Gramercy Tavern in New York, one of the spots featured on “Worth It.” “I’m not a burger guy, but this one is my favorite.”

Plus, “Worth It” is quintessential BuzzFeed, according to Lim. It features travel (the show has made stops in Japan), a taste-test format, along with price comparisons and elements of friendship (he and his colleague Andrew Ilnyckyj host the show). “It’s more fun to watch it with your friends.”

Over time, Lim has seen “Worth it” emulate appointment TV. The first hour after an episode posts, lots of viewers show up. “Every week that first hour was becoming more significant,” he said.

The new model

BuzzFeed now wants more “Worth It”-type series, especially as Facebook pushes its new Watch video tab and ramps up more video ad opportunities for publishers.

“These feel like shows,” Henick said. “They are not completely scaled-down versions of TV. They are delivering and setting audience expectations. It’s important if we are going to people who are used to buying TV ads.”

Besides trying to land more TV advertisers, one obvious question for Lim is, would “Worth It” work as a TV show? Does he even want that? After all, BuzzFeed is making shows for Oxygen as part of the company’s partnership with NBCUniversal.

Lim doesn’t think so. For one thing, “I wouldn’t be able to watch it,” he said, since he doesn’t have cable. Neither do most of his friends.

Plus, his thinking is that “Worth It” wouldn’t be “Worth It” if you took away the social elements, like sharing and commenting. “I don’t really want to go to TV. I think you lose too much.”