Founded in 2016 and known for its ribald, grunt-centric humor, VET Tv enters 2023 as a smarter, grittier, and deeper streaming service, reflecting the armed forces and veterans it wants to reach. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
LOS ANGELES — Donny O’Malley wore a white tuxedo jacket above his leather pants.
It was Oct. 23, and the founder of Veteran Entertainment Television stood offstage inside American Legion Post 43’s theater, just beyond the glimmer of a clip showcasing Let’s Talk About the War on the screen. His eyes darted to the flickering documentary, then back to his Hollywood audience.
They’d been roused by his fiery introduction, but O’Malley also seemed to sense a room of relatives, friends, and fellow vets wasn’t going to turn hostile, even if Let’s Talk About the War was a little different from what his streaming VET Tv initially became known for delivering.
This wasn’t a ribald sketch comedy, peppered with the dark slang of military members. It was a documentary, with all the hokey Hollywood sentimentality and cheap punchlines stripped out, so only combat, anger, and loss remained.
It was a series of films about war for those who waged it, like O’Malley, a 39-year-old Marine veteran. In 2012, the former commander of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, fought in Afghanistan.
Donny O'Malley, the founder of the Veteran Entertainment Television streaming service, greets an audience inside a Hollywood landmark, the American Legion Post 43, on Oct. 23, 2022. Photo by Tom Wyatt for Coffee or Die Magazine.
And then a shadow of unease seemed to fall across the face of the unflappable showman.
“I can feel the emotions coming off of others,” O’Malley later told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Maybe it was sparked by the Afghan actor, Arash Aiinehsazian, Buhtpaki on VET Tv’s comedy A Grunt’s Life, who sat with his father while the reel detailed the cost of battle to the people in their homeland.
Perhaps it was later, when O’Malley’s grandmother saw a snippet from A Grunt’s Life that screened after the documentary, including moments of nudity, pantomimed masturbation, and hazing, all told from a salty infantryman’s perspective.
Then the clips ended. The lights came on. And O’Malley was bathed in waves of applause.
His cool countenance returned.
VET Tv has completed two seasons of A Grunt's Life, a dark comedy that takes place on a remote patrol base in Afghanistan's restive Helmand province. It features a foul-mouthed, comical, bloodthirsty Marine lieutenant, his stoic platoon sergeant, and a rifle platoon waging war on the company commander and the Taliban. Photo courtesy of VET Tv.
That could trigger someone who didn’t know O’Malley to think his brief nervousness was a facade, which isn’t crazy when you think about it.
Because “Donny O’Malley” is a facade.
It’s a stage name, cloaking his real identity, Daniel Maher. He was an infantry officer who ended up in the Wounded Warrior Battalion “because my bones are brittle glass,” years before he ever started a blog, penned a memoir, or launched a streaming network.
He stumbled into television because a Marine buddy killed himself, and Maher went to his funeral.
“His mom was crying and screaming, ‘Why?’ so I thought, maybe, I could give her a reason why,” Maher said. “Maybe he died so that others can live.”
Former US Army Staff Sgt. Vanessa Brown was featured in VET Tv's 2020 reality series Veterans Laughing Together. She recounted getting shot a dozen years earlier in Iraq while on a supply run from Mosul to Kirkuk. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Before there were studios and cameras, there were hikes.
Maher organized ruck marches for both veterans and service members to build camaraderie and stave off suicides. A key cure for the blues was irreverent humor, and the stories vets told to each other.
Maher’s mind is an odd device. It’s constantly writing screenplays in the background of his soul.
He told Coffee or Die the vets “would tell me their stories and I could picture them in movies.”
Some of those stories told during the stomps became TV episodes, characters, and themes on VET Tv, a studio based in Carlsbad, California, near Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, but also in the orbit of Los Angeles and its cluster of TV and film talent.
A VET Tv crew films a fitness segment on the streets of Carlsbad, California, Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Tom Wyatt for Coffee or Die Magazine.
It debuted online in 2016 and began showcasing a subculture few non-vets get a chance to experience. And Maher began to see himself like the filmmaker, playwright, and comedic actor Tyler Perry, maybe minus the drag.
Perry identified subjects and audiences Hollywood wasn't reaching, like Black women. Maher thinks the entertainment industry often misses veterans, too.
“He told the stories he wanted to and found success in spite of the Hollywood mainstream,” Maher said.
Kinda like VET Tv CEO Waco Bass Hoover — his real name, by the way — a 43-year-old Marine infantry vet from Vero Beach, Florida. He exited the Corps a few months before 9/11 as a sergeant.
He picked up his college education and began some businesses, with an interest in health care information technology, entrepreneurship, mergers, and venture capital. Nearly three years ago, he came aboard VET Tv.
The Hollywood actor, writer, director, producer, and comedian Tyler Perry (center) accepts the Outstanding Theatrical Film Award with director Darren Grant (left) and presenter Kimberly Elise at the 2005 BET Comedy Icon Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Sept. 25, 2005, in Pasadena, California. Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images.
Adjourning to an afterparty at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, a speakeasy on Hollywood’s North El Centro Avenue, he became an ear into which spoke the city’s creative class — screenwriters and directors — plus a lot of other people, many with no tangible ties to making movies.
“You have to be humble in this game,” Hoover told Coffee or Die Magazine. “You never know where a good idea will come from.”
Maher and Hoover will need a lot of their good ideas if they’re going to grow VET Tv.
Hoover sees it as a one-stop entertainment and culture shop for military members and veterans of the armed forces, plus their families, something akin to Black Entertainment Television in its cultural reach.
“I want to have shows that spouses and kids can enjoy,” Hoover said.
From left: Tyler Perry, Vice Chairwoman Shari Redstone of CBS and Viacom, and BET President Scott Mills at the 2019 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images.
But BET’s flagship cable network reaches more than 92 million American households and is owned by National Amusements, the holding company that controls vast stretches of the world’s entertainment industry, including film and TV titan Paramount Global.
VET Tv isn’t a publicly traded company, and it has about a dozen full-time employees, which makes it a minnow compared with the National Amusements leviathan.
The streaming service doesn’t have to disclose its number of viewers, and it didn’t when Coffee or Die asked for the data. But a March 11 press release indicated VET Tv had reached more than 300,000 subscribers, plus 2 million social media followers, over the past six years.
VET Tv might be a small fish now, but it thinks like a shark, and it's swimming toward a very big ocean all its own.
Best known by his stage name, Donny O’Malley, a US Marine Corps infantry veteran, both founded VET Tv and stars in the streaming service's dark comedy A Grunt’s Life. Photo courtesy of VET Tv.
VET Tv counts 1.2 million active, reserve, and National Guard service members on duty today.
Add in the number of veterans and family members, and the streaming network sees a target audience of roughly 40 million potential viewers who spend more than $1 trillion annually on goods and services.
And Hoover and Maher think they’ve got a solid product to sell them.
On average, about 60% of a streaming service’s content is ever watched. VET Tv’s data reveal its audience consumes 94% of its catalog.
That means veterans are a very loyal and thorough audience, and they rapidly devour content they like.
Retired US Army Sgt. Maj. Mike Lavigne sprawls on the deck after shooting a physical fitness segment for streaming service VET Tv in Carlsbad, California, Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Tom Wyatt for Coffee or Die Magazine.
And that drives VET Tv to constantly create and air new shows.
The problem is that the producers don’t live on debt.
They launch new shows when enough subscribers pay their monthly fees.
That pooled funding allows the streaming service to hire the writers, stars, production crew, and postproduction talent to create or revamp a series, like they did with Noncommissioned News.
The cast and crew of VET Tv's Noncommissioned News film a segment inside the Carlsbad, California, studio on Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Tom Wyatt for Coffee or Die Magazine.
The Noncommissioned News crew gathered at the Carlsbad studio at 8 a.m. on Oct. 25. It was Tuesday, and they’d planned on filming the parody news program through Thursday, enough for five new episodes.
The set was basic: a Washington, DC, backdrop, VET Tv wall decor, and an anchor’s desk and chair for a host who’d left the show a week earlier. Instead of shuttering production, the showrunners dragooned the company’s chief communications officer, Mike Lavigne, to become the booming but acerbic voice of NCOs, which makes sense.
The retired US Army sergeant major spent nearly three decades in uniform, starting as an infantryman before he ever appeared in front of the cameras at American Forces Network.
He’d survived combat in Afghanistan, so running lines from a teleprompter as his crew finished the pre-show prep wasn’t the worst moment in his life.
“Straight newsman leads aren’t what they wanted,” Lavigne, 48, later told Coffee or Die. “It’s been fun finding that part of myself.”
Jessica Mandala (far left), the star of VET Tv's romantic comedy series Devil Docs, directs the shoot of Noncommissioned News featuring interviewer Mike Lavigne (far right), at the streaming service's studio in Carlsbad, California, Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Tom Wyatt for Coffee or Die Magazine.
The woman behind a wall of cameras, squinting through a portable monitor to get Lavigne framed correctly, was Jessica Mandala.
She’d started at VET Tv as an actress, but she’d done a little of everything else — writing, running the company’s social media — before moving into production.
She helped create and then starred in VET Tv’s first, and so far only, rom-com series, Devil Docs. The military brat based it on the marriage of her parents, who met in the Navy.
“Also, Donny loves the show Scrubs,” Mandala told Coffee or Die.
Also, like Donny, the director uses a stage name. “Mandala” was born Jessica McClelland 32 years ago.
Better known as "Donut Operator," Cody Garrett, 34, gets into character as the star of VET Tv's V for Valor, on a set at Central City Studio 1 in Los Angeles in early 2021. Photo by Shawn White, courtesy of VET Tv.
Her enemy during the Tuesday shoot wasn’t Lavigne’s budding sense of comedic timing. It was time, itself.
Her crew had to quickly film the opening monologues and the core news segments, finishing just before guests were scheduled to appear. And each episode features a guest interview, from veteran entrepreneurs to active-duty fitness instructors.
But after two days and five guests, they still weren’t done recording. They needed two more episodes, built around one very special talking head.
They jetted across the country to interview Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston.
He wanted to dish on recruiting the all-volunteer force and other hot topics, just the sort of highbrow gab Lavigne relishes, and why he enjoys doing the show.
The 16th Sergeant Major of the Army, Michael A. Grinston, plants a flag in front of a tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on May 26, 2022. US Army photo by Sgt. Josue Patricio.
They wrapped in time, and SMA joined a jumble of programming that has expanded over the past six years, beyond barracks humor and jokes touching on the mental health of veterans, to include deep discussions about war crimes and broader questions about the value of sacrifice and service.
It’s that seriousness of the company’s expanding programming, plus its larger mission to reach veterans and their families, that drew Justin Szerletich, 36, to join VET Tv in April as the company’s chief marketing officer.
It’s been a long, strange journey for a Marine infantry team leader. There were pit stops — war in Iraq, a post-military job at the Social Security Administration in San Diego, then a T-shirt startup and gigs developing content for media companies.
But now he feels he’s come home, and said it’s a “no-brainer” to stay.
“I was mostly surprised about the thoughtfulness and intentionality that goes into every episode,” Szerletich said.
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Tom Wyatt was a SkillBridge intern for Coffee or Die. He is an active-duty Naval Special Warfare boat operator and a proud father living in San Diego, California. Tom is a budding reporter, looking to pursue journalism and fiction writing upon exiting the Navy.
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