Proving nonfiction video isn’t a niche market

People don’t often think of D.C. as a big town for media, but one local company is targeting a genre that still goes underserved: factual programming. To learn more about why nonfiction video isn’t just a niche, and the opportunities inherent in being a missionary entrepreneur, we spoke with Clint Stinchcomb, president and CEO of CuriosityStream.

ABERMAN: Tell us a bit about CuriosityStream.

STINCHCOMB: CuriosityStream is the premiere subscription video on demand service dedicated to pure factual programming. By factual programming, we mean nonfiction documentaries and programs in the categories of science, technology, history, natural history, society and lifestyle. And it was founded by John Hendricks, who started Discovery Channel and Discovery Communications here in Landover, Maryland.

You know, back in the 80s. As he saw cable networks veer from their original charters, you know, more from from factual programming into more reality-based fare, he saw a real opening for a global nonfiction media provider, and CuriosityStream was launched.

ABERMAN: It is really, to my mind, a pretty noteworthy phenomenon, that a niche strategy of pursuing fact-based programming. You’ve been in the industry for a while, in media for a while. I know we need it, but don’t you find it fascinating we’re at a moment in time where that can be a discriminator, and actually drive customers?

STINCHCOMB: Well I would say the first the first piece is, we don’t consider factual programming a niche. We consider it a full category. So, just like sports is a full category, just like movies and scripted television is a full category. We see factual as a full category. And if you looked at, you know, some of the great factual series from the past, like Planet Earth for example.

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You know, we did Planet Earth at Discovery Communications several years ago, it was the highest rated series on the on the network, sold more DVDs at that time than any of the others. Planet Earth 2 launched on the BBC, and had full 40 percent of the of the TV universe come out to watch it. So, factual programming, when done well, can attract a huge audience, and it’s dramatically underserved today.

ABERMAN: So, how would you describe factual programming, then? It’s not journalism, per se. I mean, journalism is supposed to be fact based. What does fact based content mean to you?

STINCHCOMB: I think the easiest example is history, right? So, history is definitely fact based. If you come to our service today, you can watch a terrific three part series on the body. It’s a co-production we did with the NHK, sort of like the PBS of Japan. Stunning images from inside the body, and the latest science on better health and longer lifespan. That’s one. So, that’s that science and history, those are sort of easy to see.

And then even in natural history, we’ve got a great series on all the big cats of the world. I mean, you can go there and you can see from, really, the beginning of time, how they’ve come up through the world. And so, that’s considered factual programming. I mean, we say we’re rather apolitical, which is sort of unique here. But you know, our intent is to help people satisfy their natural curiosity.

ABERMAN: Yeah, hence CuriosityStream. You know, one thing you just said that I think is important to riff on is, you talked about big cats. That’s a great example of how context matters, because when you were talking, I assume, about felines, but being a musician, you could also have been talking about, you know, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. The Big Cats! And so, do facts ultimately get tied into context, and do you find in some ways you’re sort of at the cutting edge of a bigger battle? Without shared context, how can you have a shared society?

STINCHCOMB: What I’ll say in that context is this: one thing we hear over and over from viewers of CuriosityStream is, there’s so much noise today. I mean, especially if you live in this area, there’s so much political noise, there’s so much sort of rancorous talk radio, rancorous television, that CuriosityStream is sort of an oasis. I mean, you can go there and watch our programming, and you can debate certain things on the margins, but for the most part, it’s a straight ahead presentation of the full category of factual programming, which I think is more important now than ever.

ABERMAN: I think so too. I mean, if we can’t agree on shared facts, then it’s awfully hard to ever reach an agreement. That’s a conversation for a bourbon or something. Your company got my attention recently when I saw that it did a financing, It’s always big news in town when a financing gets done, and the company gets capital. Good luck to you managing investors, as a former investor. But you just raised funds. Where’d the money come from, in-region out-of-region, and what do you think it says about your business, or this as a place to do business?

STINCHCOMB: I think the reason that we were able to raise 140 million plus dollars in this kind of environment, which we closed on that in November, and as you might remember, November wasn’t the smoothest market time in the world. So, there was a lot going on, but I think there’s really two primary reasons we were able to raise that money. The first is, I think people have faith in our founder, John Hendricks. John started Discovery from his kitchen in Landover, and it grew to a 28 billion dollar market cap company. You know, at the time that he left.

And I would argue that John, in addition to being a good friend, and one of our board members, and my boss, is probably America’s greatest purpose driven media entrepreneur. I think he’s always had a passion for factual programming. He grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, in the shadows of the space station work and research. That’s his passion. Making available factual programming has been his life’s work. And so, he’s a missionary entrepreneur. And I think missionary entrepreneurs, you can debate the timetable around the money that they’ll return to you, you well know as an investor, but typically missionary entrepreneurs are going to deliver to you.

I think we benefit from being a mission driven company, and from his missionary ability. We also benefit from the fact that we’re the only one in the world that’s purely programming to the full factual category. So, if you if you want to subscribe to a service that is purely factual entertainment, CuriosityStream is your best option. Other people are in it on the margins, or is part of what they do. But that’s all we do. That’s our purity of focus.

ABERMAN: I think you just touched on something. So first of all, congratulations on your end of funding done, it’s very hard in any circumstance. It’s exhausting. And I think that the tech press, because of the way they focus on funders and founders, they tend to focus on victory lane entrepreneurs. And so if you actually go off to raise capital, the image I throw up on the screen when I show my students what venture finance looks like, it’s a picture of a tabby cat surrounded by eight Doberman pinschers, with the caption, investors are your friends.

It’s hard to raise money, but you touched on something else, something that’s really important, which is the whole concept of mission driven entrepreneurship, conscientious capital. It’s consistently shown that companies that have double bottom line, that are mission focused, outperform. You’ve been involved, and you’ve run various organizations. What is it about a mission driven organization, as a CEO, that really allows you to get people to outperform their peers in other companies?

STINCHCOMB: I think first, you need people that buy into that mission. And so you hire people that buy into that mission, and believe, like we all do, that we believe everybody on the planet should subscribe to CuriosityStream. I was talking with an analyst the other day, and he said, how big you think the market is? And I said well, you know, it’s anybody that’s curious is a potential customer. And his words, not mine, Todd Younger at Sanford Bernstein said, I guess to be human is to be curious. And so, you know, the varying degrees of curiosity. But we start first with the people who embrace the vision that we have.

We’re purpose driven, we have a purity of focus. Another big P for us is is performance. I mean, we really challenge people to be performance focused. It’s easier than in other areas to incent sales people, you know, on a performance basis. There’s a very exact scoreboard. It’s a little more challenging with engineers and programming people, but we try to do that to the greatest extent possible. And you know, what we found is that, in the service of this mission, people will work hard, and when you challenge people to go above and beyond what they’ve done for companies that they worked for in the past that they didn’t necessarily believe in, you know they will do a lot more. But it’s been part and parcel of our success, I think

ABERMAN: In my experience, when I’ve run organizations, and the way I evaluate whether or not I’m doing a good job managing organization is, if somebody who I don’t talk with on a daily basis can express what the business is about, then you’re doing well. Give some of our listeners, our budding CEOs: how do you actually implement this?

STINCHCOMB: This is gonna sound trite, but I think communication is paramount. I travel a fair bit, because another kind of guiding principle that we have is everybody carries a bag. I mean, I’m sure you know, having run businesses, you’ve had thousands of people that come in and say, Jonathan, I want to help you on strategy. It’s like, OK, I’m all for that, everybody can help on strategy, but you know, I also like GSS, go sell something. I mean, you have to work on strategy, but everybody carries a bag, everybody can help contribute to the bottom line of the company. So for me, I would say what I liked as a younger person is whenever the CEO would come out and talk.

I was enamored of John Hendricks when I was in my 20s, and I worked 18 years at Discovery, and my kids look at me like I had three heads when you tell them that today. You worked 18 years someplace? But I always loved it when when the CEO, or people in leadership positions, would just come down and talk, and take every question. So what I try to do at least once a week is bring everybody together, bring them up to speed. I may even share too much in detail on the deals we’re working on, and that sort of thing. I’d rather go a little bit too far sometimes than not far enough. And anybody can ask me any question anytime. You might not love the answer, and by contrast, I try to ask a lot of questions as well.

ABERMAN: So the message that I hear is, transparency, accountability, everybody fights, no one quits.

STINCHCOMB: Yes yes yes. And everybody carries a bag.

ABERMAN: Right. And if you don’t carry a bag, I’ll hit you myself. I think it’s really powerful. So before we wind up, I want to make sure that we cover this: if people are interested in CuriosityStream, are they tuning into this on DirecTV? How are they finding it?

STINCHCOMB: Well, you can find it many ways. The easiest way is to go to CuriosityStream.com and subscribe. We are also offered by most cable operators, you can subscribe just like you subscribe to HBO, Showtime. You can subscribe via Roku, Apple TV, Google Play Store. Easiest thing, though, just go to curiositystream.com and subscribe, and we’ve got a terrific annual rate: $19.99 a year for our annual service. What you and I used to pay for DVD, you know.

ABERMAN: Clint Stinchcomb, thanks for coming in and sharing your story. CuriosityStream is terrific, we’re glad you’re growing it here.

STINCHCOMB: Thanks so much for having me, Jonathan, it’s been delightful.

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