Behind the TV Scenes: Yahoo! News’ Tony Maciulis

By Brian Flood 

YahooTony Maciulis, Head of News, Yahoo Studios, has been Katie Couric’s right hand since 2007. In fact,  Couric often says that they “share a brain.”

Couric is now the Yahoo Global News Anchor, so Maciulis has moved into the digital space where he is making a significant impact after only six months.

TVNewser caught up with Maciulis during a busy week, as Couric prepared for an exclusive interview with embattled actor Stephen Collins. 

TVNewser: You’ve been with Katie at various locations, three to be exact. How did you team up in the first place?

Tony Maciulis: I was a senior producer at MSNBC and I worked very closely with Rick Kaplan, who was then the president of MSNBC and he left to go and become Katie’s executive producer for “Evening News.” When he left, and took that position to replace Rome Hartman he started working with [Katie] and felt I would be a good match, so he introduced us and we hit it off and have been working together ever since.

TVNewser: What are the major differences between a TV newsroom and online newsroom? Tony Maciulis: The first big difference is, there isn’t a set time that things get posted or work needs to be completed necessarily. I’m used to 6:30 pm the broadcast begins, or at 2 in the afternoon we’re live with the talk show. Here, we have the luxury of when the work is completed and its timely we can put it out. There is no artificial construct of what time is the audience going to show up.

The other thing is, unlike television which in some ways can be very passive; you might have a morning show on while you’re getting dressed. You might leave on one of the networks while you’re making dinner. People are actively seeking out our content because it isn’t something that just plays in the background. People are coming to us because they’re searching a particular topic, or they’ve heard about our interview or they’re on the homepage actively seeking information. It’s a very different kind of user experience. I’ve noticed the engagement level is very different. And the kinds of interactions you have about the content in social [media] tend to be very thoughtful. People are intentionally gravitating toward us, which is exciting.

TVNewser: So, explain what your team has been doing to create the different Katie franchises?

Tony Maciulis:  Basically, since Katie started full-time in June as the talk show was wrapping up we launched three different franchises. “Newsmakers,” which is evident. It’s whenever Katie gets a big, news-making get. We have “World 3.0” which is more of a feature series that focuses on people we think you should know. They might not be bold-faced names but they’re certainly interesting stories, they’re very solution-oriented pieces. All of them have actually performed quite well, but a couple we have really resonated with audiences. One was a piece we did with a young girl named Jazz Jennings, who is a transgender teen. Katie just really did what Katie does best, which is connecting on a very human level. And then we do an series called, “Now I Get It,” which is a short, more explainable video. Katie takes a big story of the week, like why are oil prices falling? Or the difference between Sunni vs. Shia. Or things like “what is fantasy football” for the people that don’t necessarily play it already. In two or three minutes she breaks it down, its highly “graphiczed” and kind of fun to watch, quick moving.

TVNewser: What is the future of the news? Do you see the future as the TV side, even more digital or maybe something we don’t even know about yet?

Tony Maciulis: I think that reports of television’s death have been greatly exaggerated. I think that many, many millions of people still get their news from television. Particularly local news, by the way. That being said, it is clear that the revolution has already arrived. Certainly younger people, but more and more people of all ages frankly, not just the coveted Millennials, but all of us are getting our information online. Something like 70 percent of all people get their news from either the internet or their mobile device. Video, in general, is the future.

I think that the final frontier, which [Yahoo] is already beginning to heavily explore is OTT. Basically, I do think that television is still critical. What I don’t think is as critical is whether it comes from a network or comes from your cable box, as opposed to having AppleTV or Roku and finding the Yahoo Screen app. You can watch our content on your television… that is the direction a lot of people are heading in.

TVNewser: You mentioned you dabbled in daytime talk. What do you think it takes to make a daytime talk show successful?

Tony Maciulis: I think shows like “Judge Judy” and “Ellen” have the benefit of the longevity and I think they’re on top because the audience just knows them so well. I don’t think that network executives have the same patience that they once had, to sort of let a show grow. Keep in mind that Oprah was not No. 1 her first season. I think it’s a challenge because it’s a dwindling space, in terms of available audience. It’s an older space than it used to be because, obviously, a lot of people aren’t at home during that time of the day. I don’t know what the secret sauce is for daytime other than people so seem to want to be entertained, have lifestyle-focused content and have people, probably multiple voices as opposed to a single-host format that they can feel they’re joining in a conversation with.

TVNewser: Do you think a daytime talk show format could be successful in the digital world? Say, if every day at 1 pm Netflix released a new episode of a daytime talk show.

Tony Maciulis: I do, because I actually think that might be a better user experience. Even if it comes out at 1 o’clock every day, it’s still a VOD experience and you can go enjoy with when you want it. People are interested in lifestyle conversations, or conversations about how we live today and I think that, if it were in a digital space, sure, it would find an audience. Good content tends to find an audience.

TVNewser: Earlier in your career you were a TV News Booker… what was your biggest get?

Tony Maciulis: Booking is a fantastic way to learn all aspects of the business. I would encourage anyone starting out to seek a booking department and get as much experience there as you can. You’re a producer, a PR person, writers.. you get to do it all in that roll.

My single biggest get was, maybe, Johnny Weir. At the Torino Olympics, Johnny Weir had just choked. He had been the big hopeful and was obviously so extravagant and colorful. Everyone wanted him, but he had a terrible night on the ice and it really was clear that his chances were badly dwindling if not over. I was working with Chris Jansing at that point, and we were going to do a segment with Brian Boitano, who was an NBC Olympics analyst.

When Brian’s car pulled up, I noticed Johnny was in the passenger seat. I literally knocked on the window and basically convinced Johnny to come and do an interview with us. Every other reporter was trying to get that conversation, including Brian Williams, and I paraded [Weir] through the newsroom, past the “Nightly News” team and Chris ended up doing a fantastic, impromptu interview with the man of the hour. It was a lot of fun to be able to scoop the network.

TVNewser: What was your “midterm mixer” and where did the idea come from?

Tony Maciulis: [2014] was my first time, in my professional career, covering an election but not at at network. I wanted to do something that didn’t feel like network news on the web and that was honest about our resources, but also with the way people were engaging with our content. We might be a second screen at that moment, that we are going on at 11 o’clock when a lot of the results were already in… so it would be more analysis. The concept came to me that we would do it as a cocktail party. We went to Capital Lounge in D.C. and brought in a live truck, took over the bar. We had Katie and David Gregory together with our intrepid team Bianna Golodryga, Michael Isikoff, Matt Bai, Oliver Knox, We’re assembling a real, top-notch news team here. I wanted people to see that but I also wanted people to see that we’re casual, informative, fun and really do something that would make everyone feel engaged in the political process, not be so beltway and in the weeds. So we did this big, fun party but with a lot of great information. All in all, it was a really worthwhile experiment and something I’m really proud of.

TVNewser: Upcoming plans?

Tony Maciulis: The one thing we are going to add is a weekly event, launching in January. It will be a Thursday look at the big story of the week. Kind of a re-imagining of a town hall and definitely focused on Katie’s greatest strength, which is as an interviewer. So of course we’ll exploit that and make it something special each week. I have to say, six months in, as a start-up, within this very big company, I can’t ask for better. We’ve gotten, collectively, well over 60 million unique streams and Katie is averaging about 3 million viewers per week right now.