On the media: For Young Turk Cenk Uygur, TV is the next frontier


When I ask the Young Turk what stands as competition for his Internet video show on politics, he pauses for a beat.

“Sh,” he replies. “I just don’t see them yet, thank God. The competition will come at some point and we don’t want to be overconfident. But at the same time, right now, we have huge market dominance.”

While many others have talked about new media forms and breaking down barriers, the self-styled Young Turk, a.k.a. Cenk Uygur, has administered his own wrecking ball. His Internet video program, “The Young Turks,” has become strong enough to power a small but burgeoning network of Web programs. That program’s reach has given him the credibility to jump to a spot as a fill-in host on a more traditional platform, cable station MSNBC.

Uygur (his full name is pronounced Jenk U-gurr) has reached the enviable place where he wants, but does not need, expanded air time on cable television. He has shown he can match, and even outdraw, the more traditional cable television hosts he has been replacing. But he attracts enough acclaim and cash via the Web and YouTube channels he founded that he says even a full-time gig on TV would not draw him away from his new-media roots.

It’s tempting to view Uygur as the prototype for a new generation of political commentators, who hone their craft with blogs and Web videos and then transition to older platforms. Political commentator and comedian Tina Dupuy calls Uygur “the Tila Tequila of political talk-show hosts.” Others, no doubt, will follow.

But unlike the one-video wonders who burst on the pop music scene, it’s likely that the future political talkers in the Uygur mode will make their bones more gradually. It takes more than one catchy lyric to build the world view, credibility and tone that win audiences in the long run.

Uygur has been working for a decade or more to get to his current heady place. “The Young Turks” online revenue hit the equivalent of $1 million a year in July, according to Uygur. A new “TYT Sports” channel is due to launch Wednesday. And recent ratings show that the 40-year-old host outdrew MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan on the five days he replaced the daytime host in July and August. (While Ratigan averaged 276,000 viewers in August, Uygur drew an average of 293,000.)

Cable executives hope fill-in hosts can at best hold on to the audiences they inherit. But MSNBC insiders said they believe Uygur did so well because many of those who watch his three-hour weekday Web program, (3 to 6 p.m. PDT) or clips on his YouTube channel jumped to MSNBC when Ratigan was out.

The new-media comer walks a line. He is thrilled with his cable television success and wants more air time, mostly because he says decision makers are still more likely to watch a program on cable than on the Internet. But he also says that “The Young Turks” — where he regularly dogs President Obama and Democrats, along with his usual Republican foils — is his “bread and butter.”

“If they said to me, ‘You can do cable, but no ‘Young Turks,’ I would say ‘No deal,’ even if they gave me a full-time show,” Uygur said in a Labor Day interview. “Because it’s bigger than any TV show. And I don’t say that as hype. It’s a reality.”

Well, not precisely. “Young Turks” clips drew a total of more than 18.7 million views on YouTube during August, making it one of the most popular regular features on the video-sharing service. Although a heady number, it still doesn’t match, say, the average weekly 7.6 million viewers who watch “ NBC Nightly News.”

The program makes about half its revenue via commercials posted with its YouTube videos, money it shares with the video behemoth. It makes the other half mostly from subscriptions (more than 3,000 pay $10 a month to get podcasts and other features.)

With revenue expanding at a healthy clip, “The Young Turks” (whose guest hosts include Ben Mankiewicz of “At the Movies” on Turner Classic Movies and Wes Clark Jr., son of the general and one-time presidential candidate) recently doubled its staff to 10 and is considering expanding out of its longtime studio on Miracle Mile in Los Angeles.

The Sports commentaries will feature “TYT” regulars but also welcome outsiders. “The whole attitude is, we don’t decide what works, the audience does and we go with that,” Uygur said. The new feature will join other TYT channels that already focus on movies, video blogs and interviews with newsmakers.

Program namesake Uygur, who is of Turkish descent, sets the conversational tone for the shows. The one-time lawyer and college rugby player with the faithfully liberal political bent will range away from his main topics to football, pop culture or wherever he sees promising fodder.

He has spent plenty of time lately hammering Democrats and President Obama for selling their policies so poorly and doing little, as he sees it, to remind the public that the economic crisis began during a Republican administration.

“Obama spent the first two years of his administration practicing political unilateral disarmament,” he said in one salvo. “He laid down his arms to reach out to Republicans, and they ripped his arms off and clubbed him over the head with them.”

He had been a Republican until President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq, Uygur said. He built his first audience on Sirius satellite radio, in large part with his adamant opposition to the Iraqi conflict.

Uygur, who grew up in New Jersey before attending the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia law school, sees Republicans as protecting rich and powerful interests. “But are you going to catch Democrats in corruption too?” he says. His answer: All the time. “What I say is ‘Why would I want Charlie Rangel robbing me, instead of Tom DeLay robbing me?’”

His “Young Turks” followers mounted a fierce letter and e-mail campaign to land Uygur a regular hosting spot at MSNBC. “That really helped,” the host said of his move to cable, but he said Ratigan put him “over the top” by asking him to fill in.

He said he was not disappointed that the 10 p.m. EDT time slot his followers had in mind for him recently went to longtime MSNBC personality and former Capitol Hill staffer Lawrence O’Donnell. “It’s all working out well,” he said.

MSNBC President Phil Griffin called Uygur “part of our family” and expects him to get “more and more” air time, though he declined to specify in what time slots.

Uygur said winning more time on TV matters because “I want to steer the national conversation in the right direction, from my point of view. I want to get under Robert Gibbs’ skin and Rahm Emanuel’s skin and Barack Obama’s skin.”

He scoffs at the suggestion that MSNBC can’t catch up with cable-leader Fox News. “They don’t mind throwing bombs and picking fights,” Uygur said. “But if anyone on the other side has the temerity, they will have a great success or even greater success than Fox, because there are more progressives out there.”

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