If there were a vote this week on which place has a better startup scene, Silicon Valley or Seattle, the Emerald City would win by a mile.
At least among voters who watch the new “reality” shows set in the West Coast tech hubs, which are debuting during the Bravo network’s geek week.
On Monday, Bravo aired the first episode of “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley,” which follows a handful of improbably attractive young startup wannabes.
Several come across as vapid, self-centered and repellent. Overall, what I saw of the show felt like a lame attempt to generate “buzz” and pander to a mid-20s demographic that’s appealing to advertisers. It was produced by Randi Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.
Things should improve Wednesday night with the 11 p.m. debut of “LOLwork,” a Bravo series that follows life inside Cheezburger, the Seattle-based online humor network known mostly for putting funny captions on cute cat pictures.
The LOLworkers (pictured) are quirky, charming and engaging, which is good since they could come to be seen as the new face of Seattle’s tech community.
Perhaps the show is more enjoyable and authentic-feeling because they’re actually working for a living, at a real and profitable company that reaches 20 million people a month. Or because I watched the previews in Seattle.
“LOLwork” is so polished and funny at times that you wonder if the workers are flexing their humor muscles for the film crew, helping them produce a Seattle tech version of “The Office.”
Maybe it’s just smart editing. The Bravo crew didn’t coach or prep Cheezburger employees much, said Chief Executive Ben Huh (pictured with cat).
“They had a big meeting in the beginning and they’re like, ‘Be yourself, don’t ham it up. You’re funny because of who you are and what you do.’ ”
Cheezburger employs about 90 people on Lower Queen Anne, but the show focuses on a handful of characters who volunteered for the scrutiny.
Bravo said the “30-minute doc-com” presents the world of Huh “and his eccentric staff as they attempt to make the world laugh five minutes a day by putting nimble yet grammatically incorrect captions on cute photos of domesticated pets and animals. The series begin as the staff at Cheezburger competes to create a new comedic web series for the site.”
Huh said the show was “an amazing experience of a lifetime,” but it’s not exactly the reality he sees at work.
“It’s a show — it’s a TV show. It’s been edited,” he said. “It’s not what I see in the company, but it does capture the essence of what we do.”
Huh said some of the things filmed that were really funny to him didn’t make it onto the show, because the show was edited to tell a story and some things didn’t quite fit.
Bravo paid Cheezburger for the opportunity. Huh wouldn’t say how much, but said it was negligible.
“We didn’t do it for the compensation,” he said. “It wasn’t actually very much. Basically we have a half an hour infomercial on Bravo.”
Wasn’t there a risk in letting people see how the sausage is made?
“I think we’re much more attractive than sausages,” Huh said. “I didn’t really have that concern. … We talked about what does it mean for our brand. What does it mean for our companies? What if we look like idiots?”
Cheezburger concluded that it would have to trust the producers to tell the company’s story.
Huh said the company insisted on one rule, requiring Bravo to respect the consumers of Cheezburger’s content. The rule was that “you can make fun of us. You can laugh at us. But you cannot make fun of users,” he said.
Still, by drawing out humor in the daily grind of producing funny websites, Bravo may have missed what’s really happening at Cheezburger.
The company has been steadily repositioning itself and changing its focus. It’s transforming from a media company to a platform company, building tools that other companies can use to manage and distribute content.
There’s a ceiling for growth for media, which isn’t as scalable as a platform, Huh said. A platform can be used around the world, in places that might not get the humor that works so well for Cheezburger in the U.S.
Cheezburger also has had management changes that aren’t reflected in the show. One of the business foils on the show, Chief Revenue Officer Todd Sawicki, left the company last month after filming was done.
“From top to bottom,” Huh said, “this company’s been going through a huge transformation.”
Meanwhile, Bravo’s team in Silicon Valley is trying to get funding for an app.
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Here’s a Seattle Times video of Huh offering tips on how to write good captions:
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