Q&A: Nick Buzzell | chairman / CEO, NBTV Channels / NBTV Studios

With the creation of the Spirits Network and Golf Nation, Buzzell has a grand plan to merge entertainment and advertising into content that heightens the viewing, buying experience

Nick Buzzell is driven to change traditional media the same way Apple shifted society with the smart phone. Except he has a game plan to scratch the instant gratification itch with reimagined video commerce.   

Similar to a thoroughbred out of the gate, Buzzell goes full throttle. The cadence, syntax and passion all suggest a success-at-all-costs edict. 

After graduating from Pace University, he moved up the ranks of the television business starting at "The David Letterman Show," earned a coveted NBC Page program spot and became the executive producer of “Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.” and ran NBC Universal’s Digital Studios production operations, contributing to the technical infrastructure and launching of Hulu.

For a bit he was the VP of Operations at Big Fuel, the first pure-play social media agency.

In 2008, at the age of 31, he founded NBTV Studios and later founded a new company NBTV Channels. He served as a producer of award-winning films, TV shows, branded entertainment series and commercials for Fortune 500 brands including Marriott, Coke, Walmart, and media companies, including AMC, NBCU, Hulu, as well as celebrities. 

In 2019, NBTV Channels launched Spirits Network as the world’s first shoppable video platform. The premise is something like this: commercial-free original shows appeal to spirits enthusiasts with the caveat that they’re able to instantly purchase items via on-screen “buy bars” while never leaving the streaming experience. 

This past year, the Golf Nation channel debuted as an entertaining hub for all things lifestyle and products. Also, as a way for NBTV to tap into the $84 billion golf economy. Following the same mold as Spirits Network, viewers can watch original programming that includes celebrities, professional golfers and experts — all with an emphasis on video commerce. 

Right now SpiritsNetwork.com can be found via mobile apps, Apple TV, Android, iOS, Fire TV, with content preloaded on tens of millions connected (smart) TVs. GolfNation.com is in sneak peak mode and will soon be launching on Apple TV, Android, iOS and connected TVs.

With a passionate Dan Akroyd-like delivery, Buzzell explains why he’s driven to reimagine traditional media before he leaves this planet. And why he hopes to reinvent the future of advertising and user experience through video commerce. 

The First Call's Ken Klavon sat down with Buzzell to understand his vision, what Golf Nation could mean for the industry and where it’s all headed.

Golf Nation -- Nick Buzzell
Nick Buzzell.

The First Call: Thanks for joining. You’ve had quite the career that led to this endeavor. How did NBTV come about?
Nick Buzzell: For the last 15 years, I’ve been in video content creation in the brand and entertainment space with about 1,000-plus projects. In each one, we found that everyone had the same issue — they wanted to tell a story and wanted to sell a product. 

At NBTV, we decided to launch a new company leveraging our success, calling it NBTV Channels. That’s when we launched our video-commerce business, focused on solving that challenge for advertisers and making a better consumer experience.

When I started NBTV, I was thinking about how to build and create the world’s next media company and asking, what is the future of media?

TFC: Describe what NBTV is and what you are hoping to ultimately achieve.
NB: NBTV Channels is a streaming media technology platform that enables consumers to click and purchase on one easy-to-use interface across TV, mobile and desktop. We’re designed to make it easy for consumers to buy what they see from any device.

In the age of interrupted advertising and the age of consumers being bombarded with interrupted ads, and the overall experience of what that looks and feels like, in the terms of when you think about all the technology and everything we have at our fingertips, there is a better way. What we we’ve seen, and continue to see, is essentially the reiteration of cable or broadcast on a digital stream. 

We believe at NBTV, the solution is to make the entertainment and the advertising together, and not necessarily make commercials. But make informative and educational content that specifically appeals to certain audiences that are interested in the subject. 

So, our filters are high-net spend, enthusiasts, and the underserved audiences. We are going after people who are already looking for this. Spirits [Network] fit that criterion. There’s also a tremendous amount of growth happening in spirits, so it was both serendipitous. 

So the idea was what the Food Network did for culinary, the Spirits Network does for beverage alcohol. What we’ve done is create an experience that is rooted in content and commerce, but we are also creating an experience of how we tell that story across TV, mobile and web, and do it in an authentic way. 

Our philosophy, because we’re not traditional television, is to give the customer the ability to watch for free. It’s free to join. We have hundreds of hours of premium, original content. And the quality of our programming is not what you would see on YouTube. More of what you would see on Netflix. In fact, we’ve been called Netflix meets QVC. 

Let’s say you’re watching an Apple TV or a smart TV that has apps. Once you’ve signed up for free, you can download our app and watch it on any of those devices. 

We’re trying to make it easy for consumers to discover new things. There are so many choices out there, so we have a whole discover page designed to tailor the programming to what you would like. It becomes an experience where it is personalized for you.

TFC: Golf Nation became your second channel to launch? What was the genesis behind that? 
NB: We were collecting data directly from our spirits consumer and we realized that about 60% of them are in a position where they like to golf, or they were in a position to golf, or were an active golfer.

So we decided to leverage that experience and data. We decided to launch another channel because our platform can scale. The question became, what channel and what other ones should we launch?

Golf was the obvious place. That’s the way Golf Nation was born and established. The idea that we had this success off Spirits Network, we decided to bring Golf Nation to life. We soft launched that at end of December [2022].

Golf Nation -- Logo (Horizontal).png

TFC: These channels sound like a catalyst for purchase that feeds off enlightening content. Can you walk me through the model?
NB: For me, it’s really about story first and then sales second. So what we’re doing is creating lifestyle programming around the world of golf. This lifestyle programming represents everything from content to commerce, but also represents the categories of food and beverage, travel, and the ability for consumers to see not only how to improve their game but what’s the best gear they should buy. And then we have experts who can recommend those items. 

We brought in professional players. We have David Feherty’s “Ambush,” where he is doing hidden camera-based hijinks to people on various golf courses. 

It could be a physical product. We have a show with [LGPA Tour player] Stephanie Na, where she features products that you want to buy. One could be a view finder, another a club, or particular gear. You can make that purchase right in video.

We also have crossover programming. One of my favorite shows is called “Tee Shots,” where we have bourbon expert Bill Binder and a guest sitting back and tasting great bourbons. Then they have a three-chip competition closest to the pin, which determines the winner and who will get a bottle of fine bourbon between the two. It’s a show that works for the both the spirits audience and for the Golf Nation audience. 

We have another crossover show with two interesting characters who create a travel log and it’s called “Golf Unseen.” It’s rooted in how do we get consumers get to see golf in a cultural way they have not seen before. We get to meet the people of the community and explore the food, the culture, the night life. And they’ll play a lot of golf.

TFC: Who is your demographic audience, or is the platform tailored more for everyone? 
NB: Golf is the reason why we’re here and that’s the Golf Nation approach: watch, buy and play. The key is to give consumers a way to look at golf a different way. 

We’re also talking to audiences that I think a lot of the golf industry is not necessarily marketing or talking to, especially women and DE&I, as well as around certain audiences during the pandemic who became new golfers. If you don’t come from traditional golf, it can be a really intimidating experience. 

As we launched this, I started golfing more and during the pandemic I started to play more. It reminded me that the game is best when played frequently. 

The idea is golf should be fun and accessible, and it can be played in different ways, 9 holes vs 18, scrambles, etc. For new consumers, there are a lot of choices out there. What clubs do I get? What gear? Do I need top of the line, or can I graduate to something better over time?

We are recognizing we want to be different, and we wanted to create more noise and visual excitement in golf. We don’t want to be traditional golf, and then there is the lifestyle aspect to it.

TFC: No doubt we have evolved into a society where instant gratification has become fashionable, thanks to the immediacy of the internet. Can you expand on ‘Netflix Meets QVC’ from earlier?
NB: What is comes down to is, how do you create Netflix meets QVC or Netflix meets Home Shopping Network? When you think about what Netflix represents, it’s premium programming. It’s great talent, it’s great programming. And when you think about QVC, you think if it through the lens of being interesting and product sales driven. It’s topical and a hard sell. Someone is standing there telling you the benefits of great it is. What they don’t tell you is anything but that. There’s no contextual entertainment value ither than maybe it’s a celebrity you might be interested in, but they’re selling you pots and pans, and you’re being bombarded with a pitch. 

The decision is to make it right then and there. 

But with our way, it’s in-video. The key distinction here is you can make your purchase in our environment without leaving the video. You can build a cart and come back later. You can make an instant purchase. We have a little light bulb on our screen called the “Quick Buy” button on the Spirits Network that is being implemented to Golf Nation. It’s a one-click buy.

Just as other companies have done, we’re trying to build a better customer experience. And the big missing piece we see in traditional media right now is no one is thinking about the customer right now. They’re all trying to solve their business challenges and adding more buttons and layers.

We say the riches are in the niches. It’s also about a specific topic. I want to learn and hear about golf-related things. Over time, people start to become part of the behavior. If I knew there were 10 channels and they took me across golf, spirits, luxury goods and travel, and on a platform I knew it was easy to make a purchase, on a device I’m watching video on, it’s a win-win.

Golf Nation -- Ambush With David Feherty Image.png
"Ambush with David Feherty" is one of the shows currently offered on Golf Nation.

TFC: Are you still applying traditional analytics and measurements? How do you know if something is working or not, or how do you tweak?
NB: Spirits Network and Golf Nation is available as an app that you can download. You can watch in a video-on-demand environment, and in that case we’re measuring views and impressions. We don’t have ratings because we’re not a linear broadcast TV network measured by Nielson.

With the Spirits Network, we’re launching our first FAST (Free App Supported Programming) channel for spirits and golf. FAST is relative to what cable was. It looks and feels like linear TV, where you would click on a channel like Golf Nation and watch a linear stream of programming that was pre-built and added for you. 

As a result, we’re going to create the commercial inventory in a similar way you see on traditional TV. We’re doing that to be more accessible, FAST is a popular way to deliver linear video and we want to bring shoppability “click to buy” to FAST. The key here is that we are measuring views but also impressions, which is what the typical advertising market is used to, but we are converting that to a direct sale overtime. When I think about the possibilities, one day you could say potentially say cost per sale. You can guarantee or predict certain sales outcomes.

That’s where it gets extremely interesting. So today we’re kind of playing the traditional game in terms of views and impressions (CPM) and it depends on the platform you’re on and how you are consuming it. We’re reporting those to our clients and brand partners. 

On the other side, we’re not able to guarantee sales but we can do sales targeting, hyper targeting, and regional targeting and we can talk to consumers who told us they’re interested in categories. We can isolate them. 

Right now, the industry is so focused on buying on gigantic scale that they are ultimately unable to getting [the metrics under wraps]. It identifies some of the audience. 

There are a lot of variables. It’s like the old ad saying, “I know I wasted 50% of my ad budget; I just don’t know which 50%.”

This is really to solve that challenge. If you do this the way we’re projecting, you can make this a win for the advertiser and a win for the customer at the same time. 

In a perfect world, what would success look like to you?

As we scale, we want user growth and user experience and user buy. But at the same time, we also see other categories we can be successful in. 

We want to do this across other verticals beyond spirits and golf. That’s where I can see us having 10 channels that are video and are vcommerce-based. This idea that video commerce could be easy to use and can be very user friendly, and the video content involved serves a purpose. 

If even if I watch something for two minutes, it’s hyper relevant to me. I’m looking to learn about new gear or a new product. I want to improve my backswing. I can watch a five-minute tutorial on how to do that and go practice out in my yard. Or I can book an appointment with an expert and meet them at my local course. 

These are all rooted in our goal of being the source of information that offers the ability to make purchases. 

If you saw this across 10 channels, it would be a big business pretty fast. A multi-billion-dollar media platform. But I see it as opportunity as an entrepreneur and as a media and TV and film producer to really reinvent the future of advertising. And reinvent the market in terms of user experience. If I could leave this planet doing that, I would be a happy camper.