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Nov. 20, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

Jung & Naiv, an interview show born and popularized on YouTube, gets another shot at television

The show’s host, Tilo Jung, says he is spurred on by what he feels is a German mainstream media that only goes through the motions when covering politics and government.

Legs crossed, sitting on top of one of the concrete slabs near the edge of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial just beyond the Brandenburg Gate, is 29-year-old Tilo Jung. In this particular video episode of the YouTube show Jung & Naiv, Jung was interviewing Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald. The two are sitting side by side with barely an inch of space between them, and Jung swings a small microphone casually back and forth.

“What else do you write? I heard you wrote a book or something,” Jung asks after Greenwald introduces himself.

“Yeah, I wrote a book about…you may have heard I have a source who gave me some documents,” he responds.

“Who’s that?”

Jung’s schtick is asking these sorts of basic questions of politicians and other public figures. The show’s title, a play on his name, means (you guessed it) “Young and Naive” in English, and Jung made a name for himself on YouTube interviewing buttoned-up talking heads in an irreverent way that tries to lift the conversation beyond the potentially boring format of just two people chatting on camera. The character he created for his interview segments is modeled in part after Stephen Colbert’s approach to his ultra-conservative alter ego, and the show itself is inspired by The Daily Show’s ability to draw in viewers who aren’t normally interested in politics.

Bad and blunt questions are central to the show’s interviews (some of which are conducted in English).

“The whole idea is that I play a bad reporter, who’s unprepared, who’s not very good at his job, who asks seemingly naive questions,” Jung said. “When I need to I can always play dumb, I can always say, ‘Huh? What? Why?’ I think especially politicians are not really used to being asked such fundamental questions.”

Jung has other guidelines for how he interviews for his show as well, such as sitting aggressively close to his guests and adopting a casual tone.

“This is different from many other German reporters. I always try to use the informal voice, for instance — you don’t have this exactly in English. If I were taking to Obama, I would just call him Barack, not Mr. President or President Obama.”

There are some who consider his methods tiresome, or even irresponsible. Jung’s early career included modeling and TV spots, and for some, his public persona and lack of formal training by way of big newspapers or magazines excludes him automatically from the world of serious journalism. But Jung says he doesn’t care.

“People realize, ‘Tilo just does whatever he wants.’ Sometimes what we do may be stupid or naive, but people realize that we do our own shit, and we don’t give a shit about other networks or other journalists who hate us because of our approach,” he said. “I think that’s one of the things people who like us, like about us. We have sort of a rebel image.”

In August 2013, not long after Jung & Naiv launched on YouTube, the show also began running on a youth-focused TV channel Joiz — uncut episodes containing the full interviews would go up on YouTube and a version edited to fit the 30-minute TV time slot (minus time for commercials) would air on Joiz. But Joiz went bankrupt in December of 2014, and Jung & Naiv went back to web-only.

Now, Jung & Naiv is getting another TV deal, this time with n-tv, a German news channel within the CNN network (the channel was launched in 1992 as a result of Time Warner’s push to expand internationally). Unlike its Joiz programming, Jung und Naiv will now be shooting 20-minute interviews exclusively for n-tv — which n-tv will own and distribute across their platforms — and a separate version for the YouTube channel (the TV show premieres Saturday, featuring an interview with Ulrich Grillo, president of the Federation of German Industries).

He’d had discussions with other TV networks before, Jung said, but often networks had their own ideas about what guests he should host, and he was uncomfortable ceding editorial control.

Interviews conducted by Jung’s character of a naive and bad reporter are the show’s bread and butter. But in the months after Joiz folded, Jung & Naiv had also been publishing on YouTube full transcripts and humorous supercuts on certain topics covered during the Bundespressekonferenz, an official federal press conference for journalists every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert and other ministry spokespeople offer themselves up to journalists for questions. Jung was accepted as a member back when he had a TV network behind him, and he’s been attending the press briefings each week with his producer, who helps film but doesn’t ask questions, for over a year. (The Jung & Naiv team is made up of Jung, a producer Alex Theiler, and the Frankfurt-based Schulz who advises on episodes, and Jung has no plans to grow it for the foreseeable future.)

Jung was surprised when he first started posting footage from the briefings to the Jung & Naiv YouTube channel that there were any people at all who watched these videos of “spokespeople talking about the government.” Even some of the straight video recordings of spokespeople talking have upwards of 30,000 views. He also posts audio-only versions of the episodes as podcasts, and those podcasts have found their own set of listeners as well.

“We try to deconstruct these briefings by not playing along. I try not to let them use their language,” Jung said. “It has become very Orwellian at times — I’m serious! — especially when it comes to certain topics like U.S. drone strikes, when it comes to the NSA, when it comes to Russia. It all gets pretty weird.”

“Tilo found his niche,” said Stefan Schulz, a former Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung reporter who came to know Jung after writing a profile of Jung, and now works with Jung on the show. (Schulz also currently co-hosts a podcast with Jung called Aufwachen!, where they review and banter about the previous night’s news.) That niche, Schulz told me, is somewhere between the millions of regular viewers of public broadcasting, the various commercial news offerings on the market, and the large national newspapers and magazines.

Germany has one of the largest public broadcasting budgets in the world, more than €8 billion, thanks to the obligatory fee all households and companies pay for these broadcast services. It doesn’t have to worry about financing its programming, but it does worry about audience demographics: the average age for public broadcast viewers hovers around 60.

“We have a huge public broadcasting system, and then big, big papers like Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, Bild, some smaller regional ones in Berlin, and then there’s a pretty big hole,” Schulz said. “I was fascinated by Tilo’s approach, because he didn’t have a big institution behind him. He only had YouTube.”

YouTube, where Jung & Naiv was born, has been a springboard for Jung (at the time of the writing of this story, the show had 45,722 subscribers). Compared to, say, people in the U.S., Germans in general appear to be less active in accessing and sharing news-related content on social media, and when they do, Facebook is the dominant platform.

Stefan Schulz
But YouTube has proven to be an incredible opportunity for big personalities worldwide not backed by major networks to build followings of their own. The Swedish gamer PewDiePie, for instance, made $12 million off his YouTube channel last year. VlogBrothers, a channel operated by fast-talking brothers Hank and John Green, has amassed over 569 million views, helping explain newsy topics like the Syrian refugee crisis or the rising costs of higher education. Three YouTube stars — Hank Green among them — even interviewed Obama following this year’s State of the Union address.

Publishing videos to Facebook brought Jung & Naiv 90 percent of its total views (nearing 10 million each month for the past two months), but, Jung acknowledged, “we don’t make any fricking money off Facebook at all.” YouTube also isn’t much of an income source for Jung, who estimates the show takes in about a thousand dollars a month, depending on views for that month (the money made there goes to things like upgrading video equipment). In the early days of his show, Jung raised a chunk of money through the crowdfunding site Krautreporter, and since losing the TV contract with Joiz, the show has been supported steadily by viewer donations (all videos include a Paypal link and Jung’s bank account details). Now it will have support through the n-tv deal as well.

“It’s not like if nobody donates we won’t do the show,” he said. “We’ll do it anyway, but it’s nice if we can live off of it. And people have actually donated quite a lot.”

He estimates he’s received around 500 donations this year. “A lot of these people are students and young people who say, ‘I have some money leftover, I like your show, and I have a Paypal account, so here’s a couple of euros.'” (The show’s main audience is between 20 and 35, with almost no viewers under the age of 18.)

Over the years, Jung & Naiv has expanded its coverage internationally, with dispatches from Greece, Israel, Ukraine, and other places (last year Jung even interviewed a Hamas leader). News organizations have approached him with ideas for partnerships, including proposals for a show where a German reporter comes to the U.K. to interview U.K. politicians. But Jung says that, while he envisions an international presence for his show, he’s not ready for any of that quite yet.

“Over time, I will want to expand to non-German news outlets. I like our foundation. We’ve done a lot of work in foreign countries. We’re preparing for it,” Jung said. “But we’re still fucking young! I’m proud that we’re not trying to copy whatever’s successful in America or elsewhere. We just try to produce the work that we ourselves would want to watch.”

POSTED     Nov. 20, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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