Business

Ozy Built a TV Show on a False Claim, Says Its Former Producer

By the summer of 2020, Brad Bessey was winding down a long career in television, one that included two daytime Emmy Awards and stints as an executive producer at “Entertainment Tonight” and “The Talk.” He was also, like many Americans in the summer of Covid and George Floyd, eager to make a meaningful social contribution. So when his agent approached him about working for a talk show that would go deep on important social questions, and whose host wanted to bring the country together, he jumped at it.

In June 2020, Mr. Bessey began work as the executive producer of “The Carlos Watson Show,” a daily half-hour interview program produced by Ozy Media and hosted by its chief executive, Mr. Watson, a former MSNBC anchor. Mr. Watson and Ozy’s chief operating officer, Samir Rao, told him the show would appear in prime time on A&E, the cable channel, and that it was scheduled for an August debut, Mr. Bessey said. Mr. Bessey also provided an email to The New York Times that was sent to him by Mr. Rao the day before he started work on the show, saying it would be “distributed by A&E.”

There were red flags early on. In an interview, Mr. Bessey said that he had no contact with A&E executives during the making of the show. And when he asked Mr. Watson and Mr. Rao about it, they said that the executives wanted to talk only to them, he said. And when Mr. Bessey said he knew several A&E executives and would be happy to reach out to them, they told him not to, he said.

Another warning sign, Mr. Bessey said, was that one of the other producers pointed out that A&E had already scheduled “Hoarders” for the time slot that was supposedly meant for “The Carlos Watson Show.”

Through much of July, Mr. Bessey was willing to “suspend my disbelief,” he said, partly because of the difficulties of running a show under the restrictions related to the pandemic and partly because he “was so hopeful for that social justice conversation.”

He oversaw Mr. Watson’s interviews with the actor Terry Crews, for the premiere, as well as the presidential candidate Andrew Yang and the writers Malcolm Gladwell and Roxane Gay. The booker told guests in emails, which were reviewed by The Times, that the show would be on A&E.

In addition to Mr. Bessey, Heidi Clements, a veteran TV writer who was among the producers of “The Carlos Watson Show,” said in an interview that she was told the program would appear on A&E.

“It was constantly talked about that it was for A&E,” she said.

Ms. Clements, who is white, said she was inspired by Mr. Watson’s pitch for the show during a 45-minute call before she joined the staff. She added that she was part of what she called the “great white awakening” during that summer of nationwide civil rights protests, describing herself as “excited to work for a Black media company and tell those stories that were overlooked.”

Toward the end of July, Mr. Bessey got in touch with an A&E executive to confirm that the channel would broadcast “The Carlos Watson Show.” That’s when he learned it wouldn’t appear on A&E, he said.

A&E Networks had a prior relationship with Ozy, having broadcast a special produced by the company and hosted by Mr. Watson in 2020, but it said no to “The Carlos Watson Show” before taping began, an A&E spokesman said.

Mr. Bessey said he resigned when he learned that the show would not appear on the channel. In a farewell email to Mr. Watson and Mr. Rao, which he shared with The Times, he wrote, “You are playing a dangerous game with the truth. The consequences of offering an A&E show to guests when we don’t have one to offer are catastrophic for Ozy and for me.”

Mr. Bessey said he told the show’s staff that he was leaving during a Zoom call on Aug. 3. During the call, for which Mr. Watson was present, the producer also said the program was not, in fact, going to be shown on A&E. Mr. Watson then told the people on the call that “The Carlos Watson Show” would eventually wind up on A&E, according to Mr. Bessey and one other person on the call; and until that time, Mr. Watson added, the show would appear on YouTube as part of its YouTube Originals, a slate of programming made by professional studios and paid for by YouTube. (In an email from Mr. Watson to a contractor that was reviewed by The Times, he wrote that he had “sold” TV shows to YouTube, among other companies. In fact, Ozy hadn’t sold any shows to YouTube, a YouTube spokesperson said.)

Carlos Watson during a talk last year at Carnegie Hall.Credit…Noam Galai/Getty Images

“The Carlos Watson Show” ended up appearing on Ozy.com and on YouTube, although not as a YouTube Original. A YouTube official confirmed that the show was not a YouTube Original. Mr. Watson, Mr. Rao and an Ozy spokesperson did not reply to requests for comment. There are now roughly 500 videos posted on the YouTube channel for “The Carlos Watson Show,” including the host’s interviews of Bill Gates, Billy Crystal, Amber Ruffin, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.

Ozy’s claims about its relationship with YouTube have been at the heart of its crisis, which began when The Times reported on Sunday that someone at the company had apparently impersonated the YouTube executive overseeing YouTube Originals during a conference call with Goldman Sachs in February.

During the call, the person posing as the YouTube executive praised Mr. Watson and talked up Ozy’s relationship with YouTube. In the Times report, Mr. Watson said that Mr. Rao, Ozy’s chief operating officer, was the impersonator, adding that Mr. Rao had been going through a mental health crisis at the time. (Mr. Rao has not replied to requests for comment concerning the call.)

Ozy’s board of directors initially praised Ozy’s handling of the matter. “The board was made aware of the incident, and we fully support the way it was handled,” Marc Lasry, a hedge fund manager who was the chairman of the Ozy board, said in a statement to The Times on Sunday. On Tuesday, however, the Ozy board hired a law firm to investigate the company’s business practices and leadership team. And on Thursday, Mr. Lasry resigned as chairman, saying Ozy needed someone with more experience in crisis management and investigations.

Questions about Ozy arose among some people long before the call with Goldman Sachs, as documents and interviews related to “The Carlos Watson Show” suggest.

After Mr. Bessey and Ms. Clements quit, the producers made the show to suit YouTube Originals postproduction requirements, although they believed it would be posted on the platform like any user-generated video, according to two of the show’s former producers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their job prospects.

The marketing campaign for “The Carlos Watson Show” included billboards and posters in New York and Los Angeles. Those ads included splashy quotes with misleading attributions. One such quote, attributed to the Hollywood website Deadline, calls Mr. Watson “the best interviewer on TV.” That description did appear in a July 31, 2020, Deadline article, but was taken from a statement by Mr. Rao in praise of Mr. Watson. Another quote described Mr. Watson as “Anderson Cooper meets Oprah.” That line, attributed to The Los Angeles Times, was drawn from an advertising supplement that Ozy ran in that newspaper.

Mr. Bessey and another person who worked on the show said the marketing was aimed at potential investors and executives in television and advertising, rather than general viewers. The campaign seems to have worked, at least on one front. Sponsors of “The Carlos Watson Show” have included Chevrolet and other large companies.

Some of the videos on “The Carlos Watson Show” YouTube channel have received fewer than 100 views, while others have hundreds of thousands or more than a million views. Those figures, and the small number of comments on most videos, “may indicate paid boosting,” according to an analysis by Tubular Labs, a company that tracks audiences for online videos.

It’s common for companies to pay YouTube to place ads that pop up automatically onscreen before videos, which drives up the number of views. Tubular Labs suggests that Ozy may be using that tactic with its videos.

At the start of 2021, Mr. Watson was deep in talks with Goldman Sachs about a potential $40 million investment in Ozy. On Jan. 12, a Goldman executive sent an email to Mr. Watson and Mr. Rao asking to “speak to YouTube,” according to a copy of the email shared by its recipient.

The response came from Mr. Rao, connecting the investors to a Gmail address for Alex Piper, the head of YouTube Originals; that email address turned out to be a fake, Mr. Piper said, as Ozy confirmed. And on Feb. 2, the Goldman Sachs team was on a conference call with the impersonator, who claimed that Ozy’s videos were a great success on YouTube.

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