(Bloomberg) -- For the producers of Hot Ones, one of the most popular original programs on YouTube, this year has yielded one success after another.

The show, in which host Sean Evans eats spicy chicken wings with celebrities while interviewing them, has landed viral moments with Conan O’Brien, Sydney Sweeney, Lewis Hamilton and John Oliver. While celebrities once needed to be talked into appearing on the show, they now line up for a chance to sample the wings of death.

Yet behind the scenes, the future of the show is uncertain. BuzzFeed Inc. has been trying to sell First We Feast, the food-oriented media company that owns Hot Ones. BuzzFeed’s bankers at UBS Group AG are running a formal sale process and initially asked for more than $70 million, according to people familiar with the matter.

After months of talks, UBS has yet to find a buyer. While several parties expressed interest, they have been unwilling to meet UBS on price. First We Feast is profitable and generates about $30 million in annual revenue, largely from brand and licensing deals tied to Hot Ones, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are confidential. 

The clock is ticking. BuzzFeed has more than $100 million in debt, and holders can ask to be paid back in December. BuzzFeed doesn’t have that kind of cash and, after years of losing money, shares have declined 95% since it went public in 2021. 

Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has amassed an 8.9% stake in the company, which he has criticized. He’s called for it to add new board members and hire popular media personalities like Tucker Carlson and Charles Barkley. (Each would cost upward of $10 million a year.)

Weighing Options

BuzzFeed is still weighing several options, including the sale of other assets and restructuring its debt. Selling First We Feast could net BuzzFeed money to help pay off its debt. 

Evans and the show’s producers have explored aligning with a potential buyer to acquire it themselves. Chris Schonberger created the show with Evans in 2015 at Complex Networks and the two have since worked on more than 300 episodes together. 

Evans doesn’t have a long-term contract with BuzzFeed, and has continued to produce the show under short-term extensions. BuzzFeed has been trying to get Evans to sign a new deal and indicated that at least one buyer would be open to replacing Evans as host. 

While BuzzFeed has explored a sale, the team behind Hot Ones has grown frustrated with their owner, which they feel hasn’t given them the resources to invest in expanding the business of a hit show. They would like to build on their success with Hot Ones-branded hot sauces and create more consumer products, live events or media deals with other streaming services. 

Complex Deal

BuzzFeed acquired First We Feast as part of its deal for Complex Networks, when Chief Executive Officer Jonah Peretti was rolling up online publishers to build a scaled media company. Peretti bought HuffPost in 2020 and acquired Complex for about $300 million the following year. As part of the deal, BuzzFeed said it secured $150 million in convertible note financing. The company had plans to go public via a special purpose acquisition company that it expected would raise $288 million in cash.

Instead, most of the investors in the SPAC declined to invest in BuzzFeed. The company raised just $16 million and shares in the company tanked on its first day of trading. BuzzFeed, once valued at more than $1 billion by private investors, now has a market capitalization of just $78 million.

BuzzFeed’s financial problems have forced it to unload assets. It sold Complex earlier this year for $109 million. Hot Ones remains an attractive property and is one of the few enduring franchises born on YouTube. The show is about to conclude its 24th season and views continue to climb, though are down a bit from the pandemic peak.

The producers are so confident in Hot Ones that after competing for Daytime Emmy Awards, the show is now trying to go up against some the biggest comedians in the world. The show submitted for a nomination in the category that includes late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. 

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