We need to talk about overhead instructional videos of people making food. You know the ones I mean. Open up Facebook or Instagram and you'll bump into one or two or a billion of them.
Consider "Sliders 4 Ways," in which a disembodied pair of hands moving at bullet speed turns dinner rolls and a variety of meats into a feast fit for a super-high king.
In the year since it was published, "Sliders 4 Ways" has been viewed 194 million times on Facebook alone. Or look at "Cheeseburger Onion Rings," a concoction of ground beef, spices, onions and a smooth-jazz synth score. It has racked up 167 million views in a year.
These numbers aren't a fluke. Other than music videos and actual pornography, P.O.V.-style instructional food porn has lately become just about the most popular thing on the internet.
No one knows who invented the overhead food video. Like image-macro memes or Slender Man, it most likely emerged in some primordial message-board swamp. But like everything else online, the format has since been refined, professionalized and monetized, and today most of these clips are produced on media assembly lines in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and London by a single entity: Tasty, a division of BuzzFeed that has turned the overhead food video into a hypergrowth business.
Tasty is just two years old, but by several measures it is now producing some of the most popular digital content in the world. According to Tubular Labs, a research firm that tracks digital videos, Tasty's videos were seen about 1.1 billion times in June. In some months its viewership has eclipsed three billion views. Tasty, which makes most of its money from sponsored videos that it makes for brands, is profitable, according to a representative, and it is BuzzFeed's fastest-growing revenue source.
Now Tasty has ambitions to expand beyond overhead food clips. This week, it will begin selling a physical product called the Tasty One Top, an app-connected induction cooktop that can perform a wide range of cooking tasks, from searing to simmering to sous-vide. The device, which sells for $149, will begin shipping later this year. The One Top follows a made-to-order cookbook that Tasty released last year; it has already sold more than 150,000 copies.
The cooktop and book sketch an emerging road map for the social-fueled media company: Tasty — and, in a larger sense, BuzzFeed — is trying to become something like the Disney of the digital age, an all-encompassing lifestyle brand that creates content, experiences and products for an audience hooked on phones.
"After the cookbook, I realized that Tasty was neither an experiment nor just a really popular Facebook page with lots of ad revenue," said Ashley McCollum, Tasty's general manager. "Really what we're seeing is how to make a business out of massive intellectual property that was built digital-first. It's the same model as old-media networks — you make a movie that people love, and then you build a theme park and extend that to products and everything else."
Last week, I visited Tasty's headquarters in Los Angeles. The ostensible purpose was to see a demo of the cooktop and to get a preview of Tasty's new app, which is also being released this week. The app is meant to address one of Tasty's most obvious shortcomings: Because the videos are so short (usually no more than 90 seconds), it can be a bit of a pain to actually make something from a Tasty clip. The app handily streamlines the process; click on a step in a written recipe and it plays just that step in the video.
The cooktop was created by BuzzFeed's Product Lab, a team charged with inventing "social commerce experiences," like candles that smell like your hometown or fidget spinners that double as lip gloss. The device was in an early prototype stage when I saw it, but it was far enough along for Tasty's head chef, Claire King, to cook me a steak and some crème brûlée.
My review: The One Top seems to work really well. (This is a tough job.)
The highlight of the visit, though, was a walk through Tasty's studio. Picture a long, darkened hallway with a half-dozen workstations, each outfitted with cameras and a sophisticated lighting rig. There are people everywhere — executives, interns and employees' kids, who often take part in the Tasty Junior videos — but at Tasty there's one group that matters above all else: the producers.
Tasty's producers work according to what they call a "full-stack" production model. This means that every producer is tasked with creating every part of a video, from recipe conception to shooting to editing. A typical producer will work on one or two 90-second videos a week. Their videos are inspired by many sources: recipes they find trending elsewhere online, viewer requests and comments, and data about what has performed well before.
BuzzFeed is obsessive about learning from past successes, and once it finds a theme or format that hits, it tends to repeat it until it's dead. That's why you'll see a lot of videos featuring cheese, steak, bacon and pasta, some of the most popular ingredients. And it's why Tasty videos always feature a money shot.
"Cheese pulls and gooey chocolate are so satisfying to watch, and those frames almost make you gasp out loud because they look so good," Ms. King said. "We try to create those moments in every video, whether it's an indulgent ingredient like cheese, or a fun way to use up leftovers, or cooking food in a way you haven't seen."
But what's fascinating about Tasty is that it is far less formulaic than it appears at first glance. Producers always lean on past successes, but in each video, they add in one or two different tests to see if something else might work better. Consider "Aquarium Cookies," a video created by the producer Rie Tange McClenny in May, which has been viewed about 16 million times.
Its popularity might be a result of the simplicity of the recipe; Ms. McClenny found several recipes for aquarium cookies online, but hers cuts out several steps.
Her other breakthrough was visual. Usually, Tasty videos are chronological — if you're making cookies, you start by showing the dough. But Ms. McClenny is an aesthete — "I like to make pretty food," she told me — and she wondered what would happen if she started her video with the "beauty shot," a picture of the prepared cookies, rather than just the ingredients for dough.
"And we found that it works really well," she said. "So now that has become one of our things to do."
So Tasty operates like a mix between an R& D lab and a hyperefficient widget factory. It produces content according to a loose formula, but it's willing to break the formula to try something new, and to expand the formula when it finds something that hits. Then it turns up the gas: It exports the formula to its brand clients, or turns it into books and appliances that sell for real money.
It could be unstoppable, really.