Jon Klein doesn’t care that you haven’t heard of Steve Arterburn.
That might seem surprising, since Arterburn is the first personality to anchor a "channel" of online video content on Tapp, Klein’s newest venture. Impressed by the success that personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck have had by striking out on their own to create personal TV channels, Klein—a former president of CNN—teamed up with former NBC chairman Jeff Gaspin to create Tapp.
The long-term vision of Tapp is to build a digital platform that serves as host to many such personality-driven channels. Earlier this month, Tapp launched its first channel, centered around Steve Arterburn, a syndicated radio host and the founder of New Life Ministries. New Life TV, the new Tapp venture, is a subscription-only digital channel that viewers can access for $9.95 a month. Currently incarnated a standalone website, New Life TV launched with such programs as "Bible Integration" and "Women Can be Holy and Horny."
All of which brings us back to why Klein doesn’t care if you’re not an Arterburn fan, and are therefore unlikely to shell out more than a Netflix monthly subscription rate to saturate your life with his thoughts. All that matters to Klein is: Enough people are. Arterburn has a strong enough base of "superfans"—people who simply trust Arterburn to parse the world more than anyone—to make an Arterburn-centered channel a viable business proposition.
And the world is saturated with countless Arterburns, niche celebrities you can expect to see launching Tapp channels soon.
We caught up with Klein to learn more about Tapp, the echo-chamberization of media, and why Glenn Beck is the ultimate example of the modern celebrity-as-network.
FAST COMPANY: What’s been the most eye-opening thing you’ve experienced since launching Arterburn’s channel this month?
JON KLEIN: The fervor that superfans feel for their idols. What we’re trying to do is connect superfans to the people they adore by using the medium of online video and membership in this exclusive club. But what’s surprising is how personal the audience feels that is. One subscriber was so moved she asked if she could do a Skype chat with Steve on the channel. She went and did that. She told a story about how she was in love with her pastor, and though she felt he was in love with her, they can’t hook up. She was feeling a lot of pain from that, and wanted Steve’s counsel. The reason she felt comfortable doing that was because of the exclusive nature of the channel. She knows exactly who the audience is, where they’re coming from—it feels like a safe environment for her. And that happened on Day Two of the channel’s existence. It bears out a hunch that superfans are out there yearning for a deeper connection to the people they admire most.
When did you first start thinking about superfans as a niche market?
I was at Obama’s acceptance speech in Denver and was walking around with one of our CNN contributors, Roland Martin. Though Martin was very good on air, he wasn’t a household name. But we were stopped every five feet by someone calling out his name, people hugging him, stopping him to say how much he affected their lives. I thought, "Wow, there’s a breed of person out there for whom Roland Martin, of all people, has taken on a special meaning." Soon after that I was in the office of Sanjay Gupta, the noted chief medical correspondent. Sanjay had a hundred ideas, many of which had nothing to do with television—projects he wanted to start, books he wanted to write, films he wanted to make. By the time I left, I thought, "Boy, it’s gonna hit Sanjay at some point that he no longer needs CNN as much as CNN needs him. He has his band of followers, and technology enables him to reach that audience and monetize it." I was worried a company would come along and create that, and lo and behold, that’s the company I created.
People already worry about media silos—that we have two Americas only listening to their own echo chambers. Doesn’t this take that to a new level?
That phenomenon is happening with or without Tapp. There’s no fighting a trend. When you watch Jon Stewart, you don’t think you’re in an echo chamber. You think he’s right. And that is true of everybody inside their own echo chamber. Our theoretical subscriber is a blend of both: they’re paying eight bucks a month to Netflix for a wide variety of input, they’re probably also going to a general news source online as a starting point, and then they’re also indulging their appetite to drill down more deeply, to burrow down into a silo. Tapp channels a form of online binge viewing, giving you as much material as possible from the person you most idolize.
What metrics do you look at when deciding to approach someone for their own channel?
We look at some quantifiable indicators, and some ineffable ones. We look at things like, not only the size of social footprints, but also the engagement: the Klout score and other signs of a highly engaged, motivated fanbase. We look at what their fans pay for. And then we look at the "burn" that the talent has. How driven are they to communicate and stay in touch with their biggest fans? How much of this is a way of life, not just a calculated business decision? Lots of fan sites and fan clubs crop up, then die quickly, because they lack the soul of the celebrity they were built around. They come off as arid, cynical spaces. Then you look at people like Glenn Beck, who just throw themselves into every touchpoint with their followers, with everything they’ve got. It’s that spark, that passion—that sense that they don’t know how to do it any other way.
This interview has been condensed and edited.