A blistering New York Times report on Sunday raised questions about Ozy, a digital media company aimed at millennials and founded in 2013, and whether the company was being honest about how many people it reached through its various products.
The report, from Times columnist Ben Smith, included a curious detail about a conference call between Ozy and Goldman Sachs, which in February was nearly ready to purchase the media company. From Smith:
The scheduled participants included Alex Piper, the head of unscripted programming for YouTube Originals. He was running late and apologized to the Goldman Sachs team, saying he’d had trouble logging onto Zoom, and he suggested that the meeting be moved to a conference call, according to four people who were briefed on the meeting, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details of a private discussion.
Once everyone had made the switch to an old-fashioned conference call, the guest told the bankers what they had been wanting to hear: that Ozy was a great success on YouTube, racking up significant views and ad dollars, and that Mr. Watson was as good a leader as he seemed to be. As he spoke, however, the man’s voice began to sound strange to the Goldman Sachs team, as though it might have been digitally altered, the four people said.
Someone from Goldman Sachs reached out to Piper through a contact at YouTube. Piper said he had no idea what was going on and had never spoken about the deal. Goldman determined that someone had pretended to be Piper on the call. YouTube’s security team took the impersonation seriously and opened an investigation.
Carlos Watson, Ozy’s chief executive, ended up apologizing and saying that Ozy co-founder and COO Samir Rao had impersonated the YouTube executive. Watson said Rao suffered a mental health crisis and briefly left the company to handle it before returning.
Goldman Sachs didn’t end up buying Ozy.
The Times also noted that Ozy’s claims of social reach seem far-fetched, as Comscore shows they reached 2.5 million people at times in 2018 but less than 500,000 a month this summer. By contrast, Ozy claimed in 2019 that it had 50 million monthly unique users. Brian Morrissey, former editor-in-chief of the publication Digiday, said the numbers didn’t make sense, remembering that “never once in my life has a piece of content from Ozy crossed into my world organically.”
The same goes for this millennial Daily Wire writer.
Ozy CEO Watson responded to the Times’ “ridiculous hitjob” by insisting its unique users comes from multiple platforms, including its email newsletter subscribers (it claims to have 26 million subscribers across five newsletters, which would mean an average of 5.2 million each), podcasts, TV shows, and its festivals.
Even some of that seems suspect, given Ozy’s inaccurate claims. The company claimed on billboards in Los Angeles that “The Carlos Watson Show” was “Amazon Prime’s First Talk Show,” even though it did not partner with Amazon Prime. The show was uploaded to Amazon Prime using a service, but it is not an Amazon Prime show as most people would understand it. Amazon complained about Ozy’s claims and the company promised to take them down, though Watson maintains the claim is “accurate.”
Even its claims about Watson’s show being “the fastest-growing talk show in YouTube history,” were considered suspect, as many videos have more than a million views but few comments, which is unusual for YouTube. Watson said in his response that the show “has achieved more than [200 million] views in its first 12 months, which is more than any other premium daily talk show we’ve been able to identify that was launched on YouTube.”
The allegations against Ozy printed by the Times led to the resignation of one of the digital media company’s biggest stars, longtime BBC anchor Katty Kay.
“I had recently joined the company after my long career at the BBC, excited to explore opportunities in the digital space,” Kay wrote in a statement about her resignation. “I support the mission to bring diverse stories and voices to the public conversation. But the allegations in The New York Times, which caught me be surprise, are serious and deeply troubling and I had no choice but to end my relationship with the company.”
Other fallout from the Times article include a new investigation from the Ozy board into the company’s “business activities” and leadership. Rao, who impersonated the YouTube executive, was asked to take a leave of absence pending the results.
Watson has also pulled out of an Emmys ceremony this week, where he was to host the Documentary Emmy Awards for documentary filmmakers. Ozy Fest, which the company had scheduled for October 16 and 17, was also canceled.