Say hi to Reddit, the budding Netflix wannabe

Reddit just joined the original-video scene. With its first series of documentary shorts debuting Wednesday, Reddit wants to raise the profile of its brightest communities and appeal to more outsiders.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

An episode of Reddit's "Cyborg Nation" profiles touch-sensitive prosthetic hands, which are real-life versions of the one made for Luke Skywalker in "Return of the Jedi."

Lara Solanki/CNE

A cuddlier, friendlier Reddit is taking a page out of the Netflix script.

Reddit, the social news site that bills itself as "the front page of the Internet," on Wednesday debuted its first free-standing video series, a collection of documentary shorts about the intersection of humanity and machine called "Cyborg Nation." The idea was championed by Reddit co-founder and Chairman Alexis Ohanian, who turned to a science and tech community on Reddit as a think tank to sculpt it.

"The hundreds of thousands of communities of Reddit generate more original ideas in one day than the world's best newsroom could produce in a lifetime," Ohanian said to mark the series premiere.

Over the past six months, a small video team at Reddit has been turning the site into the next tech property to hang its hopes on original video. Reddit wants the sleek clips to highlight the expertise in its forums and win it more mainstream appeal. If you've never visited Reddit before, or if you ran the other way in confusion, its videos may make its forums approachable for the first time.

More 200 million people already make up Reddit's communities, known as subreddits, which obsess over far-flung topics such as solving crime, comparing fountain pens and debating politics. That's about eight times the number of people who tune into Hulu, based on a study of the streaming site's total audience by traffic tracker ComScore.

The video effort is also an olive branch to Reddit's populace, still smarting from a summer of conflict. Many groups revolted this summer when executives cracked down on controversial behavior like harassment and fired a well-liked employee who bridged the gap between Reddit's leaders and its volunteer moderators.

A collaborative relationship with Reddit users is half the goal of the video programming, said Michael Pope, Reddit's creative projects manager. With the videos, "we're seeing the value in our community and propping it up more," he said.

The other goal is to make Reddit's communities known to a wider audience, he said. To do that for "Cyborg Nation," Reddit joined forces with Conde Nast Entertainment, the digital video arm of the magazine publishing giant that owns Wired and Vogue. Conde Nast helped mold the storytelling and wrote the check. The series will play on Wired's site, channels and apps, in addition to Reddit's page and YouTube channel. "Cyborg Nation" will also run on Conde Nast's syndication network, which includes Yahoo, AOL and MSN, and on its The Scene app for devices like Apple TV and Roku.

That could raise Reddit's exposure to the masses.

However, original video doesn't always work. Amazon, for example, initially intended to build the "movie studio of the future" by letting anybody upload scripts so talent could rise to the top, according to a 2011 promo video by head Roy Price. Amazon Studios later realized it needed industry pros to make series with less trial-and-error.

Even well-known content fails. Last month, Yahoo reduced its estimate of how much its original content is worth by $42 million. Programs like its revival of the former NBC show "Community" just weren't going to make as much money as hoped, the company said.

Reddit is avoiding some of the pitfalls that trapped Amazon and Yahoo. It's working with professionals at the outset and keeping a focus on subjects that are much cheaper to shoot. But Reddit is also playing it cool as it reaches for its video goals.

"Cyborg Nation" was shaped by guidance from members of a subreddit called r/futurology and shot by outside production company Acres with input from Ohanian and Pope. But Reddit and r/futurology's involvement is apparent only if viewers click on a credits link. For both, that's a hat tip rather than outright promotion.

Still, the company has other opportunities. "Cyborg Nation" builds on a recent string of recorded "Ask Me Anything" video interviews with celebrities. The company is making another series, called "Formative," in collaboration with Google and the r/entrepreneur subreddit. Pope said its presence in the "Formative" videos may differ because Reddit is spearheading the series from start to finish.

Correction, 9:32 a.m. PT: The original version of this story said "Cyborg Nation" was shot by Reddit's in-house team and an outside production company. The outside company shot the series with input from Reddit leaders. The story has been updated to reflect this.