The Detroit-based leftist media company Means of Production first gained national attention in May 2018, thanks to their ad for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign, which quickly went viral. Since then, partners Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton have made similar ads for Kaniela Ing in Hawaii and Zak Ringelstein in Maine. But this was but a warm-up for much loftier goals. Hayes and Burton have now launched Means TV, which aims to be “the world’s first post-capitalist streaming platform.”
Planned to launch next year, Means TV will be an on-demand platform featuring both long and short-form content, from documentaries to comedies, animation, and more, all featuring leftist voices generally ignored in the mainstream. And to ensure the mode of production is in line with the values they espouse, the company is planned to be cooperatively owned and run, and funded entirely by the viewers. Means Media is currently running a donation drive which has so far taken in over $100,000, and has been releasing videos on YouTube and social media as examples of the kind of content people can expect from them.
Obviously, there are multiple challenges standing in the way of such an endeavor. We spoke to Hayes and Burton on the phone to discuss the logistical hurdles of building an entirely different kind of media infrastructure. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dan Schindel: How big is Means TV as a company at this point?
Nick Hayes: It’s just us two, and we work with lots of writers and comedians and editors and entertainers.
Naomi Burton: Yeah, we’re the only ones. We’re the two full-timers, and we contract out the rest.
DS: Logistically speaking, how will you need to expand to launch this platform?
NH: We’re planning to launch in early 2020. We’ll be expanding our team a bit here soon, but it’s mainly freelance people, especially with developers and things like that. We try to pluck people when we can, but we’re a bootstrap organization and have very little capital to work off of.
DS: You’ve set a $500,000 fundraising goal. How crucial is it to hit that mark?
NH: That figure is only a target. It’s what we’d need to do the full version of what we imagine, to bring in all the different talent and produce some long-form, high-production-value shows and movies. We’ll probably come in much lower than that, but we’re gonna be doing it regardless with the money we have. It will just be a scaled-down version to start, one focused on gaining subscribers.
NB: But we definitely don’t have any outside funding.
DS: One big concern about streaming sites is how much they rely on algorithms, both to determine what content they host and to cater to users. How are you going to make your content navigable so that people can find what speaks to them?
NH: We’ll probably end up of grouping things into categories, at least for the first few years. One big thing we’ve been discussing is making the site open to the public. It’s transparent for people who are concerned about security issues. That could also give developers in our community the opportunity to improve on algorithms, and build different things they feel would make the process more equitable.
DS: Do you primarily want to focus on political content, or is it more about producing entertainment through this more equitable model?
NH: We get asked that question a lot. “Is everything you guys make gonna be political?” And the answer is both yes and no. Everything on Netflix is political, and a lot of it is advocating for the status quo. We’re not really interested in that sort of media. That being said, we want to make stuff that people find entertaining. Our basic rubric is: “Is this punching up or punching down? Is this racist or individualistic or contrary to themes we as leftists and working people hold closely?”
NB: I think a lot of people think that we’re just gonna be doing the news, but that’s not how it is. We are exhausted by the lack of options on Netflix and everything else. All the writers and directors we’re working with are anti-capitalists in some form, so it’s of course gonna be political, but nothing that hits you over the head.
DS: Imagining this venture not only works but even takes off, how do you think this could scale? What would a full-blown anticapitalist, worker-owned media organization even look like? Have you thought about this, or is that too far off to consider?
NH: We’re committed to a worker ownership model, and really believe that’s the future of media. What that looks like is a conversation we’ve been having, and will continue to have. Right now we’re talking about giving our contractors a seat on our board, giving them a way to make decisions about the company. We’re trying to create something that feels fair for the size we’re at right now, and knowing that as we expand, we’ll have to work together to change things, and figure out what it looks like.
NB: I mean, the way digital media and even just Netflix operates, they have billions of dollars in debt. The structure in which things have been happening isn’t working. The reason we started this was that we feel strongly about cooperatives. We don’t want to be small business owners.
DS: Is there any precedent in this field for worker-owned production to base your own structure off of? Or have you been finding your way mostly as you’ve gone along?
NH: The streaming element kind of throws a wrench in all that, because distributing media comes with all these different liabilities and other things you have to take care of. We’ve been able to apply some degree of cooperative work to this environment, but a lot of it is kind of building from the ground up. We’ve got attorneys who work in cooperative law, and are assembling a team of experts to help us figure out how to do this.
NB: There really isn’t one clear example that we’ve found that has attempted to do something like this.
DS: Most media companies are based in LA or New York. What advantages and disadvantages do you have operating out of Detroit?
NB: There are so many reasons we appreciate working out of the Midwest. I think one of them is we seen media and entertainment produced on the coasts forever, and a lot of it is unrelatable, and the way people in the Midwest or just in the middle of the country are characterized is completely off. It makes it clear that everybody is based in Hollywood. I feel like it gives us a totally different perspective, as well as a different talent pool to tap into. And that’s in addition to working with people in LA and New York.
NH: It’s easy to find people in the major production hubs on the coasts, but what we’re interested in doing is elevating people who usually wouldn’t be brought on for a mainstream show or movie, because of their way of life or because they’re from Ohio. They don’t have a story that’s marketable to executives, but a lot of them are the funniest people we know. I think the Midwest edge makes our content much more relatable and less insular than what’s produced on the coasts.
DS: How many of those voices are more established, and how many are comparatively fresh on the scene?
NB: It’s been a good mix. A lot of them are professionals in whatever capacity, whether talent or people behind the camera. But we’re also working with a lot of people who are just organizers or communists we know in Detroit. We had an organizer from Flint who had never been on camera before. We made a recent video featuring a guy who’s a Marxist roofer. It’s been nice to spotlight these people who have incredibly interesting perspectives based on their experiences in life.
DS: A lot of entertainment creation is already decentralized now. This project could only happen in this age. How far would you hope to be able to expand Means TV, assuming it goes well?
NH: I think we have a much longer road ahead of us. Most digital media companies say they’re looking to “disrupt,” but the reality is they’re building it to ultimately sell it to a larger company in a few years. We want to build an institution that people generation after generation can tap into and do creative work with, in a way that they reap their fair share of the profits. The long-term plan is building something that is able to run itself and make an important contribution to culture.
NB: I feel that as we sink deeper into this capitalist hellscape we live in, the more relatable our content will become. We started shooting a lot of this stuff a year ago, and even in that short time it’s become more relevant, and more people are starting to see behind the curtain. I think our audience will continue to expand because of that.
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