Ozy Media board to investigate “company’s business activities”; A+E pulls special from schedule

UPDATED 09/30/21 4:21PM ET: With news of board chairman Marc Lasry stepping down Following an explosive piece in the New York Times, the board of Mountain View, California-headquartered content company Ozy ...
September 30, 2021

UPDATED 09/30/21 4:21PM ET: With news of board chairman Marc Lasry stepping down

Following an explosive piece in the New York Times, the board of Mountain View, California-headquartered content company Ozy Media has called for an outside investigation into the firm’s business practices. Meanwhile, the board’s chairman, Milwaukee Bucks co-owner and investment magnate Marc Lasry, has announced he is stepping down, according to numerous outlets.

Lasry made his announcement on Thursday (September 30), stating: “I believe that going forward Ozy requires experience in areas like crisis management and investigations, where I do not have particular expertise. For that reason, I have stepped down from the company’s board. I remain an investor in the company and wish it the best going forward.”

In addition, one of its key contributors, former BBC anchor Katty Kay, announced her departure from the company yesterday (September 29), citing the controversy around the Times piece from media columnist Ben Smith which ran on Sunday (September 26). The column called into question the company’s claims regarding its reach across platforms, while also reporting that Ozy co-founder Samir Rao impersonated YouTube Originals executive Alex Piper during a conference call with a Goldman Sachs executive designed to raise funds for the company.

On Monday (Sept 27), A&E pulled from its schedule a special that was set to air as part of its “Voices Magnified” multiplatform initiative, coproduced by Ozy Media and hosted by its CEO Carlos Watson (pictured).

The special, titled Voices Magnified: Youth Digital Crisis, was slated to air on Monday night at 10 p.m., one day after the Times story broke. A previous instalment in the “Voices Magnified” initiative, Mental Health Crisis, was also coproduced by Ozy Media and aired on the network on September 20. Category 6 Media produced the special with Ozy Media.

While confirming that the network did pull the special from its schedule, a spokesperson for A&E said the network had no further comment.

Sister network Lifetime is slated to air Torn From Her Arms, Ozy Media’s first foray into scripted entertainment which is, according to Lifetime, “based on a true story, originally covered by the Ozy editorial team,” on October 30.

As Ozy Media has made efforts to ramp up its television production ambitions, it has also increased its engagement with the unscripted and non-fiction screen content industry at large. In 2019, former BBC, TLC and A+E executive Jana Bennett signed on to be a senior advisor to the company.

Ozy’s television arm, Ozy Studios, is headed by former Discovery and Viacom executive Chris Rantamaki, who joined the ranks of the multimedia company in October of 2020. A few months earlier, Ozy and A+E had announced an expanded partnership intended to result in the development and production of myriad specials and series.

In April of this year, the Ozy Studios division bolstered its ranks with several hires, including former World of Wonder exec Matthew Vafiadis as senior executive, current & branded, and former BET Networks and Releve Entertainment executive Allison Simmons as senior executive, development.

Announcing the hires, Ozy Media COO and co-founder Samir Rao said: “This is going to be an amazing year for our team and our many industry partners. Between our news, podcast, digital and TV teams, Ozy has a reach of over 75 million each month. That kind of multi-channel engagement is virtually unprecedented and offers exciting opportunities for our content and brand partners.”

But it’s those numbers — and Rao himself — that are now in the spotlight following the NYT piece.

Regarding the piece, Ozy CEO Watson shared a lengthy post on Twitter on Sunday (September 26) in which he referred to Smith’s piece as a “ridiculous hitjob,” and commented on the conference call, stating it was a “very personal mental health issue” concerning Rao and that “we reviewed it and decided to treat it for what it was — a medical issue.” He also shared the quote supplied to the Times from then-board chair Marc Lasry concerning the situation, in which Lasry said: “The board was made aware of the incident and we fully support the way it was handled.”

Also in his post, Watson cited what he called a “conflict of interest” in Smith’s reporting, referring to Smith’s involvement in a potential acquisition of Ozy Media by BuzzFeed Media, where Smith was editor-in-chef prior to joining the New York Times. Watson also defended the company’s assessment of its reach across platforms, saying that using “old-school measures” such as Comscore to gauge the reach of a modern multi-media company is “deeply flawed.”

As of Wednesday (September 28), co-founder Rao has been placed on leave, with Harry Hawks, former Hearst Television chief financial officer, brought on board to serve as interim CFO.

Besides A+E, Ozy Media has also produced content for OWN (OWN Spotlight: Black Women OWN the Conversation), PBS and Hulu among others.

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