The Death of PJTV: How Aubrey Chernick’s Right-Wing Media Dream Died
After nearly eight years, Aubrey Chernick’s PJTV has died, unable to figure out how to monetize ideological video on the Web.
PJTV.com—the right-wing online television outlet named for bedtime clothing and funded by a reclusive Los Angeles tech billionaire—is shutting down after nearly eight rocky years, unable to figure out how to monetize ideological video on the Web.
The often-bellicose outlet—which once deployed Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher as a war correspondent in Israel, and featured truculent firebrand Bill Whittle (who joked at a Ted Cruz rally that gun-toting Texans should shoot at cars bearing California plates), talk radio jock Tammy Bruce, and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds among its roster of a dozen conservative and libertarian personalities—abruptly stopped producing video content this week at its lavish television studio and editing facilities in El Segundo, hard by LAX.
Starting on May 11, according to a memo from the outlet’s executive producer, Chad Mann, PJTV will cease to exist, and its archives will reside at PJMedia.com.
Several former employees and outside observers described the two enterprises as money-losing ventures whose advertising revenue and online traffic—8.3 million unique visitors in the first quarter of 2016 for PJMedia.com, according to a Google analytics tracking figure provided by a PJ Media spokesperson—were hampered because much of PJ TV's content was behind a paywall and available only to subscribers. (The spokesperson declined to specify the number of subscribers, explaining that the information is proprietary).
PJ Media, LLC, after all, is a privately held company whose “far and away” majority owner, according to the spokesperson, is a Canadian-born software coder named Aubrey Chernick.
In a brief phone conversation with The Daily Beast, Chernick, who has—by several informed estimates—spent tens of millions of dollars to bankroll PJ Media and PJTV, declined to comment on his decision to shut down his television operation, saying “I’m tied up right now…Thanks so much for calling.”
According to an internal estimate, the PJTV closure will result in around 14 staffers in Chernick’s 52-person media venture either losing their jobs or being transferred to one of his non-media enterprises.
Chernick, who has been involved in a variety of businesses and once marketed so-called “screen tranquilizers” featuring floating fish in a video aquarium, recently launched NextGeneration Crowdfunding, which is aimed at helping consumers and start-ups make sense of the complex federal regulations regarding money-raising and equity ownership.
PJ Media, Chernick’s 11-year-old online venture, was originally dubbed “Pajamas Media,” and initially conceived as an advertising-friendly website for a consortium of largely conservative but also left-leaning blogs.
Its name was inspired by a snarky remark made by former CBS News executive Jonathan Klein when independent bloggers, not the mainstream media, exposed Dan Rather’s journalistic misfire concerning apparently forged documents and President George W. Bush’s stint in the Texas Air National Guard.
“You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances at 60 Minutes,” Klein said dismissively as “Rathergate” was building steam, “and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.”
The 67-year-old Chernick—variously described by associates as smart, stubborn, and mercurial, hardly unique among self-made men—is a generous donor to conservative, Jewish, and pro-Israel causes, moderate Republicans and even during the 2008 election cycle to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as to Jihad Watch, a website dedicated to exposing what it calls “a concerted effort by Islamic jihadists…to destroy [Western] societies and impose Islamic law upon them.”
“Little Green Footballs” blogger and Web designer Charles Foster Johnson, a founder of Pajamas Media along with Hollywood screenwriter Roger L. Simon, approached Chernick for financial backing (which ultimately amounted to $7 million in startup funds) after meeting him in late 2004.
Johnson—a prominent voice on the right before the dog-whistle racism of Barack Obama detractors and the racially charged xenophobia of alt-right fascists and white supremacists prompted him to switch sides—had been invited to a speech by radical Islam opponent and former Bush appointee Daniel Pipes at Chernick’s gated Mandeville Canyon estate in LA’s tony Brentwood neighborhood.
“His mansion is behind a gate that looks a little bit like the gate in King Kong,” said Johnson, who left the company in 2007 after deciding that Pajamas Media had departed from its original mission as a forum for post-partisan discussion, and “became pretty much one of those cookie-cutter right-wing websites.”
Johnson said Chernick is “a micromanager and a pretty hard-charger. He’s a guy who apparently doesn’t sleep very much. Roger and I would occasionally get calls in the middle of the night from him, and we eventually had to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you may not sleep, but we like to.’ He always wants to talk about things and was very much of a driven guy.”
A second former Chernick associate and longtime PJTV employee, who claims a friendly relationship with the billionaire, explained: “Look, he’s an eccentric. He’s one of those guys who has 10 ideas a day, seven of them are awful train wrecks, two of them have potential, and one of them is brilliant—and he can’t differentiate the brilliant ones from the train wrecks.”
This person, who asked not to be named so as not jeopardize a severance agreement, added: “He’s an outside-the-box thinker who thinks out loud…There’s also an element of: He’s a billionaire who caught lightning in a bottle with something that everyone told him would never work.”
Ignoring naysayers in the tech world four decades ago, Chernick created software that could precisely monitor a computer’s performance in real time and help correct glitches—and eventually sold his company to IBM for $641 million, a pile of cash that has increased to an estimated $1.29 billion over the past dozen years.
“He became very rich,” said the former associate, “and from that he learned some good lessons and he also learned a lot of the wrong lessons—like not to trust people when they tell you it won’t work.”
An example of the latter phenomenon occurred in late 2012, as Chernick prepared for the launch of what he had envisioned as a political discussion program for PJTV’s paid subscribers, and arranged for a focus group session to gauge public reaction to his ideas.
The show, titled Next Generation TV, was to feature gay Republican radio host John Phillips, conservative journalist Michelle Fields (later a Breitbart News political reporter and the object of a controversy involving Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski), and former Florida congressman Allen West, an African-American hard-right Republican given to calling Democrats “Communists” and other incendiary rhetoric.
West left PJTV after a mere seven months under murky circumstances reportedly involving workplace complaints against him; the PJMedia spokesperson, citing privacy concerns, declined to comment on the reasons for West’s departure.
“One day Aubrey woke up and said, ‘I don’t think we should do politics anymore,’” said a former PJTV employee familiar with the internal discussions surrounding the show. “He said, ‘I think we should appeal to other people, so why don’t we just do a cooking show? Michelle can do fashion.’ So why would you even hire Allen West? The thing wasn’t even explained. There was a huge, long conference call and Aubrey had this idea.”
Another of Chernick’s brainstorms for his newly reconfigured program was to invite school kids to write in if they’d demonstrated academic improvement, receiving an “A” on, say, a biology exam after getting a “C” on a previous one.
Chernick’s idea was to have the hosts of Next Generation TV regularly present trophies to deserving children.
On a mid-December evening in 2012, Chernick and a couple of staffers sat for four hours behind a two-way mirror at Trotta Associates, a market research facility in Marina Del Rey, watching two focus groups—one consisting of middle-aged participants, the other comprising twenty-somethings—give their thoughts about his notions for a TV show while enjoying drinks and expensively catered meals brought in from a nearby restaurant.
Unfortunately, the focus group participants hated his idea.
“The twenty-somethings were the most brutal,” said a witness, who asked not to be identified for fear of a reprisal. “They were awful. ‘Why do I care if Johnny got an “A” on his biology test?’ Some of them thought it was a prank. They kept asking, ‘Can you tell us, is somebody really funding this idea?’
“The guy who was moderating said, ‘Yes, he wants your opinion.’
“So can you just tell him how sorry we feel that he’s actually funding it and he doesn’t realize how dumb his idea is?’”
Chernick, watching, shook his head in disgust, according to the witness, who quoted him as declaring as he left the facility, “They’re idiots. They don’t even know what they want. I know what they want. They don’t realize what they want.”
Vik Rubenfeld, the company’s director of research who also attended the focus group, disputed this account of Chernick’s remarks, which the Daily Beast’s source reconfirmed. But Rubenfeld added: “Aubrey has never been shy about testing possible content ideas. That’s how he sorts the good ideas from the bad, so that we deliver relevant content to our readers and viewers.”
Still, when Next Generation TV debuted in January 2013, it was a political discussion show.
Last year, as PJTV was apparently foundering as a business, Chernick ordered up a reboot of PJMedia.com, dialing back its ideological identity in order to add verticals on “Parenting,” “Faith,” and “Lifestyle.”
The re-launch happened in November. Stories this week in the “Lifestyle” category included “5 Worst Airports for a Layover,” “Ladies, Interested in Younger-Looking Skin? The CIA Can Help,” and “Woman Takes to Facebook to Show Pics Before and After a Panic Attack.”
“There was some audience research that indicated that sites for parenting, lifestyle and faith would grow the audience,” said Joan Seavey, a longtime Chernick employee who is PJ Media’s vice president for marketing. “We had information from our survey research that a younger audience—young people who were raising children and defined themselves as center-right conservative or libertarian—were asking for some of these things. These were topics they’d be interested in if they were reported in a responsible way.”
Still, a former PJ Media staffer—who joined the company excited by the prospect of promoting conservative ideals, but left it disillusioned as the website re-launched—said the enterprise seems to have lost its way.
“It’s the click-bait conquest of the Internet,” said this person, a self-described conservative who asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize a non-disparagement agreement. “We were going to be the place against the mainstream media, we were about truth, and about what was right.
“Now, the way I see it, it has been corporatized, and there’s a demand for constantly getting clicks and generating ad dollars with the kind of content that can’t compete with content that is going to take risks and actually try to do something.”
This report has been updated to account for Vik Rubenfeld's comments.