Just out of college and certain about only one thing—that he was really good at watching TV—Jay Peterson moved to New York in 1996 and landed an internship at ABC News. Though no couch potato, with plenty of hours spent playing lacrosse and hockey for a Big 12 school, Peterson was an early adopter of binge-watching long before the days of on-demand streaming video. From there, this affinity for the small screen steered him to other roles at major TV networks.
With entrepreneurial DNA inherited from his real-estate developer father, Peterson knew that eventually he would be his own boss. He was just waiting for the right set of circumstances. Now founder and CEO of Matador Content, a full-service production company with offices in New York and Los Angeles, Peterson is also executive producer of Spike TV's Lip Sync Battle, a cultural juggernaut built on Jimmy Fallon's viral Tonight Show hit. Lip Sync Battle is the first television series ever filmed in virtual reality, and viewers with burgeoning technology like the Oculus Rift can share in its immersive experiences.
Peterson founded Matador Content in 2012 with Todd Lubin, an established producer and friend from college. With Peterson helming the New York office and Lubin in Los Angeles, the full-service production company has created a staggering amount of content in three years.
Their output includes reality shows, the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary Banksy Does New York and other features, and Lip Sync Battle, which broke ratings records for Spike in its April 2015 debut. At any given time, Matador has up to 200 independent contractors working on an ebb and flow of projects and about 40 full-time employees.
Matador Content co-founders Todd Lubin (left) and Jay Peterson (right)
"Our biggest value proposition," Peterson says of Matador's growth over the past two years, "is that we're active in all verticals and genres. We do variety shows, game shows, docu-soaps, talk shows, sports, comedy, scripted projects and digital stuff. That structure has allowed us to be nimble when trends suddenly fall out of favor. It might sound terrifying—like 'Jack of all trades, master of none'—but we have the best people in each of those silos."
Peterson has worked with the company's core team for several years or more. "The best way to recruit is to hear good things about people and sell them on working with us," he says. "If all goes well, hug them tight and never let them go."
Matador's diversified portfolio of original material is an ideal match for today's content landscape. With new vehicles for consumption constantly in development, from watches to phones, everyone wants video. "Keep inventing it, and we'll make it," Peterson says, excited for the next frontier of scripted content for YouTube stars, arriving with millions of subscribers happy to pay a dollar per view.
Last year, Matador partnered with talent management firm Untitled Entertainment to form Untitled/Matador, a joint venture with shared office space on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. "We like each other's style," Peterson says of their shared sensibility. "They have so many ideas and clients, but they're not a development company. They needed a clean path to doing that as quickly as possible, and we provide that."
By "style," Peterson means a way of doing business. Matador tends to attach to ideas it believes in, and then figures out how to get them made and seen. "Sometimes people say, 'You can't sell that. There's nowhere for it to go.' And we'll just go shoot it, walk it around and sell it. Maybe people can't envision it when it's just on paper, but once they see it, they're sold. Jason Weinberg [Untitled's founder], loves that approach, and the talent does, too. We've done it several times, most recently with Alan Cumming's new show."
For the near future, Peterson envisions Matador's evolution as a super-indie studio and production company increasingly reliant on self-financing. He wants to grow the company, rather than sell it, and takes pleasure in knowing exactly what to do when he shows up to work every day. "I really love it when I see a cut of something and think back to when we sold the idea in a room, when it was just air," he says.
Peterson's graduate education helped in crafting a solid pre-launch business plan, which he says is unusual among production companies. "People usually start out with an idea and sell it to a network," he says. "The idea becomes hit, so they form a production company. It's engineered a little backwards. They go on to make shows in the format that brought them success early on, but networks are fickle, and genres come and go out of style. Then they have a company with office space and staff to pay and a huge investment in equipment. We're different in that we built the machine and filled it up with our stuff, rather than having stuff and building the machine around that."
For an early binge-watcher who once thought his best skill was consuming TV, turns out Peterson is pretty good at creating it, too.