A year after All Def Digital, one of the web’s biggest Black-owned digital sites, collapsed in the aftermath of #MeToo allegations against founder Russell Simmons, the reborn company is charting a new course led by two former tech executives and backed by an ownership group that includes music and sports notables such as T.I., Killer Mike, Jason Geter, and Baron Davis.
The new ADD is moving beyond the original platform’s tight digital focus on hip hop, comedy and slam poetry. Under new CEO Cedric J. Rogers and partner Shaun Newsum, the new ADD is exploring more genres and distribution approaches. It’s also expanding relationships and programming ventures with traditional media companies, working with WarnerMedia-owned FullScreen, and Comcast
Rogers and Newsum are engineers by training, working respectively at Apple and what’s now called Disney Streaming Services. By 2018, though, they had launched Culture Genesis to produce programming for underserved “black and brown” audiences online, Rogers said. The company worked with Kevin Hart’s LOL Network and Steve Harvey’s production company Harvey International before bringing to All Def Bar Exam, a digital game show about hip hop music.
Then, things fell apart for ADD. Simmons was one of a number of high-profile entertainment executives facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, and stepped away from the company in 2017. Last year, as funding and business relationships dried up, ADD went into bankruptcy.
Ultimately, through a bankruptcy process called Assignment for Benefit of Creditors, Culture Genesis was tabbed to take over the ADD assets, in part because it already had relationships with many ADD creators, and in part because it brought technical, creative and financial resources. Its backers include venture capital firms Betaworks and Mucker Capital, along with that glittering set of prominent minority investors.
With the new ownership came some new directions, built on a foundation of the resources ADD had already created, including a library of more than 4,700 digital show episodes.
“You have to give them credit, for (having been founded in) 2013, (ADD executives) were looking at digital, and trying to take what they saw from Def Comedy Jam and move it forward to digital, and really put a focus on the up-and-coming platform,” Rogers said. “And we have taken that and really just doubled down on it.”
For Rogers, “doubling down” means moving into new verticals such as animation, cannabis, and gaming, which continues to be one of the web’s biggest and fastest growing sectors. But within that, ADD is keeping its focus on Black creators, audiences and programming. In sectors such as gaming, those sensibilities typically get overlooked despite the many Black musicians, athletes and other prominent talent known for their love of gaming.
Doubling down also means moving into new kinds of programming, with new partners such as YouTube and Facebook, which are both trying to expand their programming for Black audiences. Rogers declined to detail those projects just yet.
More broadly, the company is pushing its content across most major social-media platforms, trying to be everywhere that makes sense and can be sustained. The push is paying off: The company says visits across all of its social-media platforms have doubled, to 600 million views a month since 2019. Monthly hours of watch time now top 40 million. Its main All Def site claims 4.5 million subscribers.
“We look at, as a good model for where we are headed, Barstool Sports,” Rogers said. “They did a great job of being omnichannel. So we are focusing definitely with Instagram, and with Twitter and TikTok, we definitely have strong presence there.”
The company is working closely with FullScreen, WarnerMedia’s talent-management and branded content shop, to advise Culture Genesis and ADD on how to build relationships with brands trying to reach Black audiences across social, digital and more traditional platforms.
Fullscreen SVP of Talent Stu Smith said his company has focused in part on optimizing ADD’s content across social media and social video platforms. It’s also advising ADD’s network of creators on ways they can do a better job with brands, building more sustainable online careers.
“There are some nuts and bolts things that you have to do to have a healthy social-video business in 2020,” Smith said. “And those aren’t necessarily the most fun things to work on.”
That kind of blocking-and-tackling approach to the basics can also help drive ADD’s long-term stability and success, Smith said.
One major expansion has been onto streaming video services and platforms with longer-form programming. For Rogers, it’s not just about expansion but control.
“I see a great opportunity for us to to continue to own our own destiny,” Rogers said of OTT, especially compared to social-media platforms that can change algorithms (and business opportunities) on a dime. “So we can then work with Fullscreen and their sales team to help us sell inventory across that channel. We have way more control there, once we establish it and get an audience converted there.”
To that end, the company signed a strategic partnership with Jupiter Entertainment to create TV shows and other high-end content. The company is mining its library from ADD’s many years of productions, but decided against licensing those shows to other OTT services despite the hot market for niche programming.
Instead, Jupiter is developing ADD’s TriviaMob digital program into a full-fledged TV game show, with the aim of creating something like the red-hot cultural phenomenon that HQ Trivia enjoyed for awhile, Rogers said. A second show is being developed based on Culture Genesis’ first ADD show, Bar Exam, where celebrity judges decide how well players fill in missing lyrics from rap songs.
The company is also building apps for various streaming platforms, including Roku, iOS, Android and Apple TV. Those All Def OTT apps are expected to roll out later this fall.
All of this is happening against a world-changing backdrop of not just the pandemic, but also months of nationwide protests in favor of racial justice. It’s made an even higher priority the need for more Black voices and venues.
“I think the core of the conversation here is that people are looking at how Black creators haven’t been seeing the same opportunities as their counterparts,” Rogers said. “People are starting to wake up to the fact that there’s other groups of people that really want to find entertainment, and they’re big groups as well, so there’s a lot of money to be made there. It’s been a good opportunity for us over the last several months that people are waking up to see that we do good content, and that there’s great opportunities to work together.”