Podcasting startup WaitWhat raises $4.3M as interest in audio content explodes

WaitWhat, the digital content production engine behind LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast, has secured a $4.3 million Series A investment led by Cue Ball Capital and Burda Principal Investments.

Launched in January 2017, WaitWhat will use the cash to create additional media properties across a variety of mediums, including podcasts.

Investors are gravitating toward podcast startups as consumer interest in original audio content skyrockets. Podcasting, though an infantile industry that hit just $314 million in revenue in 2017, is maturing, raking in venture capital rounds large and small and recording its first notable M&A transaction with Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet and Anchor earlier this month. The music streaming giant shelled out a total of $340 million for the podcast production platform and the provider of a suite of podcast creation, distribution and monetization tools, respectively. It plans to spend an additional $500 million on audio storytelling platforms as part of a larger plan to become the Netflix of audio.

WaitWhat, for its part, dubs itself the “media invention company.” Founded by June Cohen and Deron Triff, a pair of former TED executives responsible for expanding the nonprofit’s digital media business, WaitWhat is today launching Should This Exist, a new podcast hosted by Flickr founder and tech investor Caterina Fake.  Fake will interview entrepreneurs about the human side and the impact of technology in the show created in partnership with Quartz.

“People don’t just transact with content; they want to feel connected to it through a sense of wonder, awe, curiosity, and mastery,” Cohen said in a statement. “These are contagious emotions, and research shows they stimulate sharing. Where many media companies aim for volume — putting out lots of content with a short shelf life — we’re building a completely distinctive portfolio of premium properties that are continually increasing in value, inspiring deep audience engagement, and creating opportunities for format expansion.”

Other investors in the round include Reid Hoffman, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and Liminal Ventures. WaitWhat previously raised a $1.5 million round from Victress Capital, Human Ventures and Able Partners, all of which have joined the A round.

Netflix says new episodes of “Arrested Development” will debut on March 15

It’s time for another hit off the juice box. Netflix announced today that it will release the remaining eight episodes of “Arrested Development’s” fifth season on March 5, ten months after the first half premiered. In the intervening time, however, the show has dealt with several controversies revolving around accusations of abusive behavior from star Jeffrey Tambor, who plays family patriarch George Bluth.

The Netflix installments of the show, which began in 2013 with season 4 and marked the show’s return after running from 2003 to 2006 on Fox, have received mixed reviews and failed to achieve the iconic status of the original episodes. The controversies surrounding the show’s cast has also dampened some fans’ enthusiasm, at least for the new seasons.

Tambor will appear in the upcoming episodes despite being fired from Amazon Studios’ “Transparent” last year after he was accused of sexual harassment by two of his colleagues on the series. Then Tambor’s “Arrested Development” co-star Jessica Walter said he had verbally abused her during filming. In a New York Times cast interview to promote the first half of season five, Walter said she was “over it now,” but tone-deaf responses from male castmates, including Jason Bateman, underscored how warped gender dynamics and Tambor’s misbehavior might have been enabled on set (Bateman later apologized).

Tambor has denied the sexual harassment accusations, but a year and a half after the MeToo Movement began taking off, it is likely to continue casting a pall over the latest installment of “Arrested Development.” The new season picks up story lines involving the Bluth company’s involvement in building the border wall and Buster’s murder trial.

Netflix cancels “Friends From College” after two seasons

Netflix comedy series “Friends From College” will not return for a third season. The show’s co-creator Nicholas Stoller announced the news earlier today on Twitter.

Despite a very poorly-reviewed first season (the Guardian referred to it as TV’s “most hateable show”),”Friends From College’s” second season was better received. But apparently that wasn’t enough to save the show, which followed a group of Harvard graduates.

In a statement to Hollywood Reporter, Netflix said “We’re grateful to creators Nick Stoller and Francesca Delbanco for creating a wise, funny and supremely relatable show. We also want to thank the hard-working crew, and we raise a glass to the amazingly talented cast including Keegan-Michael Key, Fred Savage, Cobie Smulders, Nat Faxon, Annie Parisse, Jae Suh Park, and Billy Eichner.”

The news that Netflix is bidding adieu to “Friends From College” came a few hours after it confirmed that “The Punisher” and “Jessica Jones” will not be renewed, the last two Marvel shows after it cancelled “Iron Fist,” “Luke Cage,” and “Daredevil.” Netflix’s purge of Marvel shows may be related to the end of its deal with Disney, which plans to produce its own superhero content for its new upcoming streaming service.

Study says U.S. Twitch streamers raked in roughly $87 million in 2017

A new study study estimates that revenue-earning American Twitch streamers grew to nearly 9,800 in 2017 (a 59 percent increase from 2016) and made an estimated $87.1 million (representing a 30 percent YOY increase).

Twitch is one of the fastest growing platforms for American content creators. In terms of YOY growth in number of creators themselves, Twitch falls just behind Instagram and Youtube, and ranks second behind Instagram in YOY revenue growth for those creators. (Fun Fact: Instagram’s creator-based revenue growth grew nearly 50 percent from 2016 to 2017 to $460 million, according to the study.)

Recreate Coalition says that these numbers are very conservative based on the methodology of the study and the fact that it’s limited to the U.S.

The growth of Twitch is predicated on a few obvious trends, as well as a very nuanced relationship between a streamer and his or her respective audience.

In the case of the former, ‘live’ digital experiences continue to be a fascination for startups and consumers alike. While Twitch and YouTube have offered live broadcasts for a while, social media companies have followed along with their own live streaming products. In fact, Betaworks dedicated a season of its accelerator program to ‘live’ startups, calling the program LiveCamp.

With regards to the latter, things get more interesting. The relationship between a viewer and a streamer is similar to our relationships with other famous celebrities, artists and athletes, but puts the viewer far closer to the action.

Streamers don’t just pop up briefly in articles, TV interviews, or on Twitter or Instagram. They spend hours and hours each day just sitting there, doing whatever it is they do on stream and chatting with their viewers. You can get to know their personality, talk to them, and they talk back to you!

It’s a bizarre combination that has proven financially fruitful for these streamers, especially at a time where the gaming industry itself is growing by double digit percentages YOY for the past two years.

A tier of elite, hyper-popular streamers such as Shroud, DrDisrespect, Dakotaz and of course Ninja are leading the way for others as they continue to gain followers. In fact, Ninja just partnered with Wicked Cool Toys to introduce a line of actual toys to the market. Ninja himself made nearly $10 million in 2018.

But as the gaming world explores new genres and esports grow, there seems to be plenty of room for streamers to make a name (and a pretty penny) for themselves.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post included a few too many zeroes, stating that U.S. Twitch streamers made $87 billion instead of $87 million. It has been corrected for accuracy with my apologies.

Apple acquires talking Barbie voicetech startup PullString

Apple has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has reportedly acquired PullString, also known as ToyTalk, according to Axios’ Dan Primack and Ina Fried. The company makes voice experience design tools, artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like talking Barbie and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise $44 million.

Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying PullString could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers.

PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but countered by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes.

In 2016 it rebranded as PullString with a focus on developers tools that allow for visually mapping out conversations and publishing finished products to the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of features, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for a lot more developers to jump into building voice products for Apple’s devices.

We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available.

The startup raised its cash from investors including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.

Alibaba takes an 8% stake in Tencent-backed anime streaming site Bilibili

Ecommerce giant Alibaba is continuing its push into the world of youth culture after it scooped up an 8 percent stake in anime streaming and game publishing company Bilibili.

According to a securities filing on Thursday, Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace has acquired about 24 million shares in Bilibili, the Shanghai-based firm that has captured 93 million monthly users from hosting licensed anime titles, video games and user-generated content.

The financial gesture is hot on the heels of a partnership announced in December that saw the pair working to monetize Bilibili’s content assets. For one, Alibaba can help Bilibili creators sell merchandise like cosplay costumes and anime toys through Taobao’s online bazaar. Bilibili itself owns an e-store, but Taobao’s command of 700 million monthly users dwarfs its reach. 

“The partnership is great news for ACG content creators,” a Shanghai-based merchant that sells Lolita costumes on Taobao told TechCrunch, referring to the acrynom for “anime, comic and games.” The owner sells through both Taobao and Bilibili, though most sales have come from Taobao.

“We can now leverage Taobao’s gigantic platform and seasoned ecommerce operating capabilities to further help our content creators realize and improve their commercial values, thereby building a more virtuous content community and commercialization-focused ecosystem,” says Bilibili chief executive and chairman Chen Rui in a statement.

taobao acg alibaba

Screenshot: Taobao has a dedicated channel for anime, comic and gaming (ACG) items.

What Alibaba gets in return is access to China’s Generation Z. Bilibili claims that 82 percent of its users were born between 1990 and 2009. In a savvy move, Alibaba hooked up its food delivery unit Ele.me with Bilibili in December to tap a demographic of anime-watching and game-playing young people reliant on delivered meals.

Over 1.6 million content creators, including anime, comic and games (ACG) experts, were actively supporting the Taobao app and helping brands on our platform engage with consumers,” says Fan Jiang, vice president of Alibaba and president of Taobao. “Through deep cooperation with intellectual property holders and content creators, Taobao has experienced the great potential of ACG.”

Investors’ darling

Tencent and Baidu’s iQiyi have also spent big bucks to beef up their respective anime offering, but Bilibili’s flourishing youth community gives it an edge over these deep-pocketed video-streaming heavyweights and to an extent makes it an investors’ darling. The eight-year-old company is notable for being one of the rare companies that count both Alibaba and Tencent — which compete on multiple fronts spanning ecommerce to cloud computing — as their investors. Other companies that won backings from the duo include China’s largest ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing.

Last October, social media and gaming juggernaut Tencent poured nearly $320 million into Bilibili in exchange for a 12.3 percent stake. While Alibaba helps drive revenues to Bilibili’s community of creators and potentially boost their loyalty to the site, Tencent could help it save on licensing fees for games and animes.

“Tencent and Bilibili are two of the major players in the animation industry. By working with Tencent, this will intensively expand our content offering and effectively decrease our content investment in the animation copyright procurement,” Chen of Bilibili said during the company’s Q3 earnings call.

“The agreement will enable us to leverage Tencent’s primary content, particularly in licensing, co-producing and investment in anime as well as publish Tencent’s large portfolio of high-quality mobile games,” Bilibili’s chief financial officer Sam Fan added.

It isn’t just apps. China’s cinemas broke records during Lunar New Year

China celebrated Lunar New Year last week as hundreds of millions of people travelled to their hometowns. While many had longed to see their separated loved ones, others dreaded the weeklong holiday as relatives awkwardly caught up with them with questions like: “Why are you not married? How much do you earn?”

Luckily, there are ways to survive the festive time in this digital age. Smartphone usage during this period has historically surged. Short video app TikTok’s China version Douyin noticeably took off by acquiring 42 million new users over the first week of last year’s holiday, a report from data analytics firm QuestMobile shows. Tencent’s mobile game blockbuster Honor of Kings similarly gained 76 percent DAUs during that time, according to another QuestMobile report.

People also hid away by immersing themselves in the cinema during the Lunar New Year, a movie-going period akin to the American holiday season. This year, China wrapped up the first six days of the New Year with a record-breaking 5.8 billion ($860 million) yuan box office, according to data collected by Maoyan, Alibaba’s movie ticketing service slated for an initial public offering.

The new benchmark, however, did not reflect an expanding viewership. Rather, it came from price hikes in movie tickets, market research firm EntGroup suggests. On the first day of Year of the Pig, tickets were sold at an average of 45 yuan ($6.65), up from 39 yuan last year. That certainly put some price-sensitive audience off — though not by a huge margin as there wasn’t much to do otherwise. (Shops were closed. Fireworks and firecrackers, which are traditionally set off during the New Year to drive bad spirits away, are also banned in most Chinese cities for safety concerns.) Cinemas across China sold 31.69 million tickets on the first day, a slight decline from last year’s 32.63 million.

Dawn of Chinese sci-fi

wandering earth 2

Image source: The Wandering Earth via Weibo

Many Chinese companies don’t return to work until this Thursday, so the box office results are still being announced. Investment bank Nomura put the estimated total at 6.2 billion yuan. What’s also noticeable about this year’s film-inspired holiday peak is the fervor that sci-fi The Wandering Earth whipped up.

American audiences may find in the Chinese film elements of Interstellar’s space adventures, but The Wandering Earth will likely resonate better with the Chinese audience. Adapted from the novel of Hugo Award-winning Chinese author Liu Cixin, the film tells the story of the human race seeking a new home as the aging sun is about to devour the earth. A group of Chinese astronauts, scientists and soldiers eventually work out a plan to postpone the apocalypse — a plot deemed to have stoke Chinese viewers’ sense of pride, though the rescue also involves participation from other nations.

The film, featuring convincing special effects, is also widely heralded as the dawn of Chinese-made sci-fi films. The sensation gave rise to a wave of patriotic online reviews like “If you are Chinese, go watch The Wandering Earth” though it’s unclear whether the discourse was genuine or have been manipulated.

Alibaba’s movie powerhouse

This record-smashing holiday has also been a big win for Alibaba, the Chinese internet outfit best known for ecommerce and increasingly cloud computing. Its content production segment Alibaba Pictures has backed five of the movies screened during the holiday, one of which being the blockbuster The Wandering Earth that also counts Tencent as an investor.

Tech giants with online streaming services are on course to upend China’s film and entertainment industry, a sector traditionally controlled by old-school production houses. In its most recent quarter, Alibaba increased its stake to take majority control in Alibaba Pictures, the film production business it acquired in 2014. Tencent and Baidu have also spent big bucks on content creation. While Tencent zooms in on video games and anime, Baidu’s Netflix-style video site iQiyi has received wide acclaim for house-produced dramas like Yanxi Palace, a smash hit drama about backstabbing concubines that was streamed over 15 billion times.

Seeing all the entertainment options on the table, the Chinese government made a pre-emptive move against the private players by introducing a news app designed for propaganda purposes in the weeks leading to the vacation.

“The timing of the publishing of this app might be linked to the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as an opportunity and a necessity to spread their ideology,” Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director of German think tank MERICS, told TechCrunch earlier. “[It] may be hoping that people would use the holiday season to take a closer look, but probably also knowing that most people would rather choose other sources to relax, consume and travel.”

Hulu greenlights ‘Howard the Duck’ and three other animated Marvel shows

Four new animated Marvel series, plus a crossover special, are coming to Hulu.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Hulu has greenlit “MODOK,” “Hit-Monkey,” “Tigra & Dazzler Show” and “Howard the Duck.” The characters will then come together in a special titled “The Offenders.”

These aren’t exactly A-list, or even B-list, Marvel characters. Howard the Duck (created by Steve Gerber) is probably the best-known — mostly for starring in a notorious ’80s flop — but I’ve also got a soft spot for MODOK, a gloriously ridiculous villain whose full name is Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.

MODOK

Presumably, the strategy here is to make funny shows about some of the weirder Marvel characters. And there are some established names working behind the scenes, with Kevin Smith signed up as a writer and executive producer on “Howard the Duck,” Patton Oswalt serving in a similar role on “MODOK” and Chelsea Handler on “Tigra and Dazzler Show.”

Meanwhile, the Netflix-Marvel partnership — which also started out with four superhero series and a big crossover — appears to be coming to an end, with only “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” left uncanceled (for now).

Hulu is already the home to another Marvel series, “Runaways,” and it makes sense that the relationship for to deepen after the Fox acquisition, which made Marvel’s corporate parent Disney into the majority owner of Hulu. And if that’s not enough streaming superhero content for you, there are also shows about Loki and other characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the works for the yet-to-launch Disney+.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is lethally dull

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and writer-director Dan Gilroy — who worked together on the creepy crime thriller “Nightcrawler” — have reunited for a new Netflix Original film, “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

While “Nightcrawler” wasn’t perfect, it was tense and unsettling, filled with eerily beautiful shots of nighttime L.A., plus a career-best performance from Gyllenhaal. It’s hard to believe that the same team was responsible for the muddled “Buzzsaw,” a film that tries to combine art-world satire and horror movies scares, ultimately failing on both counts.

The setup involves the death of a mysterious artist, leaving behind a trove of strangely compelling paintings. Soon, though, everyone involved in promoting or selling these paintings starts dying too.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Jon Shieber to try to understand what went wrong here. The movie isn’t particularly funny or scary — instead, we’re stuck with obvious jabs at the hypocrisy of the art world, interrupted by boring, unimaginative death scenes. And while Gyllenhaal is trying something in his portrayal of pompous art critic Morf Vandewalt, the results are more head-scratching than compelling.

This episode isn’t just one long pan, though. We also offer our (considerably more positive) impressions of the Netflix series “Russian Doll,” which stars co-creator Natasha Lyonne as a New Yorker who keeps dying and repeating the night of her 36th birthday. And we discuss Super Bowl streaming numbers and new details about Disney’s streaming service.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You also can send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Apple turns Ariana Grande and other musicians into Memoji for its latest ads

Just in time for the Grammy Awards, Apple has unveiled three new ads for Apple Music, featuring new singles from Ariana Grande, Khalid and Florida Georgia Line.

In each video, the musicians have been transformed in Memoji (the human-style Animoji variant that was announced last year), which lip synch to their latest songs. The ads probably won’t change any minds when it comes to Memoji and Animoji — but if you like the format, they’re are fun.

Apple actually created similar ads with Animoji lip synching to Childish Gambino and Migos before last year’s Grammys.

As The Verge points out, if you watch to the end of the videos and pay attention to the small print, you’ll notice that these Memoji were “professional animated.” So don’t feel too bad if your lip synching Animoji videos don’t look quite as good.