An Emmy Award-winning television producer resigned from Ozy Media this summer, after he discovered he was producing a show for the embattled company without there being a network on which to air it.
Brad Bessey joined Ozy Media in June 2020, to work on The Carlos Watson Show – a daily, half-hour talk show presented by Watson, who is also Ozy’s CEO.
He was told repeatedly that the show would be broadcast on the cable channel A&E.
But this summer he discovered that there was no agreement with A&E, and that the show would just appear on Ozy’s YouTube channel.
Bessey and his team had told guests that they were appearing on a show to be broadcast on A&E, and said he was deeply troubled by the duplicity.
‘You are playing a dangerous game with the truth,’ he wrote in his resignation email, obtained by The New York Times on Thursday.
‘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.’
Brad Bessey, a veteran television producer, was hired by Ozy in June 2020. In August he resigned, having discovered that the show he produced had no network on which to air it
The Carlos Watson Show, which was broadcast on YouTube, was going to be shown on A&E, Watson and others told Bessey. He later found out that no deal had been reached. Watson (left) is pictured interviewing Terry Crews for the first episode
Bessey announced his departure to his show colleagues during a Zoom call August 3. The call – which Watson was present for – saw Bessey tell those assembled that the chat show would not be airing on A&E as promised.
Watson countered by claiming his project would instead be appearing on YouTube’s prestige YouTube Originals channel, which broadcasts programming made by professional studios, and paid for by YouTube.
But that claim failed to materialize, with the shows appearing on Ozy’s standard YouTube channel. YouTube has denied claims the show was ever slated to appear as an Original.
Some of the episodes have only a few hundred viewers, with others claiming more than a million.
The small number of comments underneath episodes in relation to the viewing figures has let to speculation that audiences were inflated using a practice called ‘paid boosting.’
That would have seen episodes appear as adverts before videos users had actually clicked on to watch, dramatically bumping up traffic.
Further allegations of smoke and mirrors came over the ad campaign for the show, which saw billboards erected in New York and Los Angeles.
One billboard included a quote branding Watson ‘the best interviewer on TV,’ and credited showbiz publication Deadline.
While that statement had appeared in Deadline, it was actually from a statement made by Ozy’s COO Samir Rao, during an interview about the startup.
Another billboard branded Watson ‘Anderson Cooper meets Oprah,’ but came from an advert Ozy had itself run in the Los Angeles Times.
Despite the deception, the show managed to attract multiple big-name guests for its interviews, filmed virtually because of COVID, including Dr Anthony Fauci, Scarlett Johansson and Megyn Kelly.
Bessey’s account comes amid mounting problems for the media startup, which was founded in 2013 and produces a digital magazine, newsletter and podcast in addition to the show.
Bessey said that he was shocked by the cavalier attitude of the company’s founders
On Thursday the chairman of the company resigned after it emerged that the chief operating officer, Samir Rao, had posed as a YouTube executive on a call with Goldman Sachs, to discuss a possible $40 million investment.
Revelations about Rao, a co-founder of the company, were followed by allegations of an extreme and exhausting workplace.
Marc Lasry, the billionaire financier admitted that Ozy was in dire need of ‘crisis management’ as he resigned his position.
He told the New York Times: ‘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.’
Ozy Media Chairman Marc Lasry resigned on Thursday, days after a report found that the company’s co-founder Samir Rao allegedly impersonated a YouTube executive on a call with potential investors
The company faces further scrutiny after being accused of using smoke-and-mirrors business tactics when it tried to throw a Fyre Festival-like event in 2019 in New York’s Central Park.
On Tuesday, the Ozy board announced it had hired a law firm to investigate the company’s ‘business activities’ and leadership team, the NY Times reported.
Rao had allegedly set up a videoconference call with Goldman Sachs on Feb. 2 that included an appearance by Piper to discuss Ozy’s standing on the social media platform.
But when it came time for Piper to talk, Goldman Sachs officials received a notice that the YouTube exec was running late and having trouble logging into Zoom.
The videoconference then switched over to an old-fashioned telephone call where Rao allegedly began impersonating Piper.
During the call, Rao – as Piper – boasted that Ozy had a huge subscriber base, garnered significant ad dollars and was run by an incredible leader, all to win favor with Goldman Sachs.
The company’s co-founder Samir Rao (right) allegedly impersonated a YouTube executive Alex Piper (left) on a call with potential investors
Ozy had also allegedly claimed it had a great relationship with YouTube, where many of its videos attracted more than a million views despite the company having only about 95,500 subscribers.
Goldman Sachs officials described the call as unnatural, almost sounding ‘digitally altered,’ the Times reported.
After the call, a Goldman Sachs official emailed a confused Piper, who said that he was never on the call.
YouTube launched its own investigation after finding that someone had impersonated one of their executives, which quickly led them to identify Rao.
Carlos Watson, Ozy’s chief executive officer, contacted Goldman Sachs and also confirmed that Rao was the one on the call, apologizing profusely for his actions.
Watson blamed the incident on Rao’s mental health.
Lasry, who invested just $1 million in the startup – according to Axios – had previously defended Watson and the company following the report.
In a statement to the Times, he wrote, ‘The board was made aware of the incident, and we fully support the way it was handled.’
He added, ‘The incident was an unfortunate one-time event, and Carlos and his team showed the kind of compassion we would all want if any of us faced a difficult situation in our own lives.’
Lasry’s resignation comes as several former Ozy employees shared stories of alleged systematic abuse in the workplace that was understaffed and overworked, as well as reports that the company cashed in on insurance money for a failed festival in 2019.
Marc Lasry, right, had defended Ozy Media and its leadership following the report of co-founder Samir Rao impersonating a YouTube exec. Lasry is pictured in January with Michael Jordan, left, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
Staff at Ozy have accused Rao of being a bully and creating a toxic work atmosphere.
Rao, also allegedly once demanded to see an employee’s medical records after she suffered a panic attack and extreme depression after working 18-hour days at the ‘abusive’ firm.
Eva Rodriguez, 24, a creative director for Ozy since 2017, was rushed to the ER and later admitted into a six-week outpatient program for ‘extremely depressed people’ after the panic attack late last year.
‘I felt so helpless because I desperately needed to sleep and take time off, but Carlos had expressed how critical my role is to the show,’ Rodriguez told CNN Business in reference to Ozy CEO Carlos Watson.
‘And if I didn’t do this, the show cannot go on.’
Soon after, she says she got a call from her doctor’s office that a ‘pushy’ and ‘aggressive’ man claiming to be Ozy’s Human Resources director had been asking to review her medical records. It allegedly turned out to be Rao.
Rodriguez revealed she’d suffered the panic attack – which she at first mistook for a heart attack, two weeks after being pushed into an 18-hour work day role creating branding for The Carlos Watson Show.
She said she returned to work after completing her program, but ultimately decided to leave Ozy in February when she contracted COVID-19 and her employers allegedly told her to ‘work through it.’
‘It’s like a cult,’ Rodriguez said. ‘I really felt like I would be nothing without them because they had given me so many great opportunities and that I would let them down severely if I ever quit.’
Rodriguez worked an 18-hour role for The Carlos Watson Show, hosted by the company’s CEO
CNN reported it had interviewed nine other former Ozy employees who shared stories similar to what Rodriguez experienced.
The former staffers accused Ozy Media of pushing employees too far as the fledgling media company set about ambitious goals to become a big name news outlet.
One former employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told CNN that the company expected four writers and two editors to produce 40 high-quality magazine articles per week.
Others said they found themselves managing entire departments while in their 20s with little to no experience.
Whenever employees felt overwhelmed, the former staffers claimed Watson would step in and use his charisma to make sure staffers could not say no.
‘Carlos was a bully,’ a former staffer said.
‘He would do whatever it took to get what he wanted. He did not accept no for an answer.’
The employees added that they often found themselves working on the weekend and having to schedule their lives around Watson.
The employees were also upset by Watson’s claim that Rao’s alleged impersonation incident was due to ‘personal mental health issues’ and that the company stood by Rao, noting that they had never seen such support about their mental health from the CEO.
Ozy, whose well-heeled investors include the Berlin-based media powerhouse Axel Springer and Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, did not immediately respond to an inquiry from DailyMail.com.
Eva Rodriguez, left, said Ozy Media co-founder Samir Rao had allegedly acted as the company’s Human Resources Director and demanded medical records from her doctor after the employee suffered a panic attack late last year
Many in the industry began to accuse the company of overinflating its audience size and influence, with one source calling it a ‘Potemkin village,’ a term for a decorative façade that hides what’s failing just beneath the surface
Featured speakers at OZY Fest 2018 included Christian Siriano, Roxane Gay, Isaac Mizrahi
Along with its news department, Ozy also produces a number of non-fiction television shows and, in 2016, launched its own Manhattan-based music and comedy festival, OzyFest – which brought a cease-and-desist letter from Ozzy Osbourne who claimed that the name was too similar to his Ozzfest music festival.
Carlos Watson: The former MSNBC star turned entrepreneur who founded Ozy
Watson, 52, was born in Miami to a Jamaican father and a mother from Virginia, and went on to graduate from Harvard University and Stanford Law School.
A fast-rising star, his early career included stops at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company.
His TV career launched in 2002 as a political analyst for Fox News and CourtTV. He was also a CNN commentator for two years.
By 2009, Watson had secured an anchor gig with MSNBC, where he co-hosted an afternoon segment with Contessa Brewer.
The show was short-lived, and Watson launched Ozy in 2013 with Samir Rao, his fellow Goldman Sachs alumn.
Ozy has garnered some $70 million in venture capital backing, but the latest allegations raise questions about the site’s business performance.
Watson had once vowed that the annual event was going to be ‘the new South-by-Southwest,’ but former employees and insiders said that the struggling festival was more akin to the infamous Fyre Festival.
By 2018, Ozy was raising eyebrows with the claim that it had sold 20,000 tickets to that year’s event at the Rumsey Playfield despite the venue only having a capacity of just 5,000.
‘We had never proven the ability to sell even 5,000 tickets,’ a former employee told Forbes. ‘When we were trying to sell 5,000 tickets we were begging people to buy them. We were putting them on discount, discount, discount, giving them away.’
Much like the Fyre Festival, the failed 2017 event meant to promote the Fyre music booking app, Ozyfest seemed to be an expense that promised much more than it could deliver.
Then in 2019, Watson made an ambitious gamble by scheduling Ozy Fest for Central Park’s massive Great Lawn, vowing to sell 100,000 tickets and promising appearances from comedian Trevor Noah and billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
Planning for the event got off to a rocky start after the company was busted using an image of the much more popular Global Citizen Festival in ads for the Ozyfest- a bait-and-switch that Ozy execs blamed on a rogue team member.
And the promised lineup for the event was even more sleight of hand, according to former employees.
‘The way they’d get guests on their TV shows and guests on their festivals is they’d lie and say they already had commitments from X, Y and Z,’ one employee who worked on Ozy Fest told Forbes.
‘And they were like, oh that person dropped out, oh that person can’t participate. But they never had those people to begin with.’
Another employee told Forbes that unlike other media outlets that give trade air-time with guests who appear on their shows by allowing the stars a chance to talk about their projects or causes, Ozy’s high profile guests were always paid for.
‘Ozy would bill them as ‘friends of Ozy’ and that’s why they’re there,’ says the former employee. ‘But no, they were paid to show up. Everything has a price tag.’
Documents filed with the New York City Buildings Department showed the 2019 festival was only licensed to host 15,500 people per day during the two-day festival.
Staging the event would have cost some $6 million, in addition to the millions Ozy likely spent on advertising, according to experts consulted by Forbes.
Insiders say it came as a relief when the festival was cancelled at the last minute by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also called off the New York City Triathlon due to a searing heatwave that hit 100 degrees.
Likewise, Ozy’s 2020 festival was canceled due to the pandemic.