The Death of Bon Appétit Is Proof Media Companies Have No Idea What Makes Videos Work

The Death of Bon Appétit Is Proof Media Companies Have No Idea What Makes Videos Work
Photo: Richard Drew, AP

There are a zillion reasons why I have been mourning the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen. The one that hurts most is that the slow, drawn-out death of one of the most joyful YouTube channels on the internet could have easily been prevented.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the drama, the shit first hit the fan on June 8, when writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted a photo of then Bon Appétit Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport in brownface. What followed was an explosive public reckoning as several staffers — those who appeared in videos, those behind the camera, and some at the magazine proper — recounted stories of racism, tokenism, and unequal pay at Condé Nast, Bon Appétit’s publisher. Rapoport resigned. Condé Nast Vice President Matt Duckor also left after racist and homophobic tweets from as recently as 2014 were unearthed. (Duckor has been employed by Bon Appétit since 2011.)

The first part of this saga ended with Bon Appétit posting a pledge on its Instagram to “do better” in reckoning with its culture of racism, sexism, homophobia, and harassment, and assured viewers of a future with more “inclusive programming.” Still, BA had effectively gone dark on YouTube — not because of the pandemic, which the crew successfully figured out how to safely shoot videos in spite of, but because staffers refused to appear on camera in solidarity with their underpaid colleagues.

Things were silent for a bit and then on Thursday, three beloved Bon Appétit stars — Priya Krishna, Rick Martinez, and Sohla El-Waylly — announced via their Instagram and Twitter accounts that they would no longer appear in BA videos because, as you might expect, the corporate suits at Condé Nast Entertainment wouldn’t pay them what they deserved. Soon, BA favourites Molly Baz and Gaby Melian also said they would no longer be appearing in videos as a result. Then yesterday, Carla Lalli also announced that she was leaving BA video. That brings the number of staffers who’ve quit making videos up to six.

This is a woefully incomplete recap of issues plaguing what was once a wholesome oasis in the endless barrage of bad news and irony-poisoned memes that now make up the internet. It doesn’t take a genius to suss out that Condé Nast Entertainment is killing a hyper-successful video channel because profits are more important than equitable pay. Compensating these staffers fairly isn’t likely to make a huge dent in Condé Nast’s profits, especially when you consider that Bon Appétit had been irrelevant for years before this group of unlikely video stars came along. Perhaps, Condé Nast is more afraid of what else the staffers will ask for. But regardless of why Condé Nast is being so stubborn, something in Lalli’s tweet was a literal shot through the heart for anyone who has ever produced or starred in a video for a media company.

After describing a once-organic process where people got to pitch their ideas freely and videos were often shot by a one-person crew on a small budget, Lalli then traces an all-too-familiar change in process once BA’s videos began to take off. “By that time, video-related revenue was integral to Bon Appétit’s budget, and [Condé Nast Entertainment] relied on algorithms instead of instinct when determining who could appear in videos. Content decisions were largely data-driven. The editorial team had diminishing influence over video strategy,” Lalli claimed. “I felt that the expertise and interests of the hosts was less important to the decision-makers than platform-specific trends.”

Smarter people than I have weighed in on the systemic racism that’s rampant in food media. But I do know something about making videos for media companies with half-baked plans to “pivot to video.”

Videos are a labour of love. It’s common knowledge that TV and movie productions take months, if not years, to plan and execute. For some reason that acknowledgment flies out the window when it comes to digital media. “How hard could it be?” the publishing executive in a bespoke suit muses. A five-minute video should only take, what, four hours to produce, shoot, and edit? Why not pump out two, three, four, five videos a day? And if a “good” video takes that long to produce, why not opt for “easy” videos that we can shove out the door? After all: more videos, more ads, more money. And that’s really what’s driving it all, in case you’ve never been in the rooms where these decisions are made — advertising sold against video content commands a higher rate than traditional web display ads. It’s absolutely that simple.

To anyone who’s ever been involved with making a video, this brand of c-suite thinking is pure comedy. Hosted videos often involve scripts, written by a video producer and sometimes the on-screen talent. They involve pre-production: creating shot lists, buying props, and brainstorming how best to express a concept with whatever resources you’re given. They involve nuts and bolts decisions like lighting, framing, and set-up before anyone ever steps into the studio. When you actually get around to shooting, there’s no such thing as a single take. You film, saying the same things over, and over, and over again until you get what you need, and then, one more time for safety. After that, it can take forever and a year, depending on your internet connection, to upload footage. Video producers are like marathon runners — they sometimes sit hunched over their computers for 18 hours at a time (usually in “editing bays” that are glorified closets) just to get a first cut done. Sometimes, you have to reshoot bits or re-record audio. Sometimes an editor gets picky with second-round edits. In short: a two-day turnaround for a lean crew is speedy, and likely means multiple people have pulled long hours to make it happen. Two videos a day? You’re asking someone to work themselves to death. Because these days, media executives aren’t exactly keen on providing resources or hiring the staff necessary to lighten the load.

This is true of Bon Appétit’s videos, too, and why the refusal to pay people what they’re owed is so infuriating. Make no mistake, as effortless and freewheeling as BA Test Kitchen videos appear, it requires a small army to keep these videos going. That Bon Appétit’s video crew was obviously having fun at the same time? That’s what made their videos so aspirational for the rest of us.

This is what media executives don’t understand. To them, videos are a vehicle for ad dollars, whether readers want them on not. Executives like to think that if they can game the numbers just right, they’ll have impressive figures to show advertisers, and a fistful of Benjamins to line their pockets. They’re not thinking about why anyone would want to watch these videos. As for paying people equitably for their labour — why would they when they can pay a contractor for the same amount of hours and skip paying the healthcare benefits?

Silicon Valley has hyped algorithms to be infallible arbiters of data-driven truth, but anyone who’s been on a bad Tinder date can tell you the limits of that. Data without context isn’t much of anything. Analytics are meant to guide content creation — not define it. Did Condé Nast’s algorithms foretell just how quickly Sohla El-Waylly would capture the heart of BA fans? Not likely. To hear El-Waylly tell it, she was shoved in front of a camera to make BA appear more diverse. That she became as popular as she did was because El-Waylly was delightful to watch and could cook like a motherfucker. Did the algorithms predict that challenging a neurotic pastry chef to make gourmet versions of snack foods would be a hit? Probably not. That sounds a lot like editorial staff shooting the shit and deciding why the hell not? No machine would possibly know a tall weirdo who can barely finish a sentence trying to ferment various foods would be beloved by millions. They watch because Brad Leone is hilarious, and the shady choices that BA’s video editors make are also a hilarious meta-story in and of itself. 

What I’m getting at here is that people are what make videos work. People — given the licence and resources to have fun — are the reason why viewers hit the play button. People are the reason why you hit that like and subscribe button. Even as BA grew from a sleeper hit to its own cinematic universe, what kept it successful was that the human element came through in moments congenial, frustrated, heartbroken, petty, and embarrassing. No one watches BA Test Kitchen because they’re fans of Condé Nast, or want to see Condé Nast succeed.

It’s heartbreaking, then, to watch BA’s staff fight to make things right, to see their fans vocally and passionately support them in that fight on every conceivable platform, and know that Condé Nast does not give a fuck. It’s depressing to know that the people who made the BA Test Kitchen magical are not the ones who get to decide its future; that the best most of them can do given the circumstances, is to walk away, knowing their bosses see them as barely more than a rounding error.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The solution is right there in plain sight, for everyone with a pair of working eyes to see. It’s like this because the adults in the room don’t care: They barely understand what they own, and hardly notice when they sign its death certificate.