E!'s Grace Helbig experiment: Does YouTube stardom equal ratings?

'The Grace Helbig Show' is a crucial experiment for E! in helping shape the future of the network

A hipster Silver Lake home may not be the typical setting for a network talk show, but Grace Helbig is far from a traditional host.

The 29-year-old digital star, who has amassed nearly 2.3 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, clutched a Red Bull in one hand and a notebook in the other as she rushed to get her hair and makeup done in a bedroom of the house Helbig likens to Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

"Welcome to our circus!" said the petite blond, already dressed for E! Network's "The Grace Helbig Show" in a black long-sleeved shirt with matching flowered skirt.

Helbig, with her massive digital following and relatable personality, is just the kind of unconventional star E! was looking for to shake up its programming lineup. Known for her funny "awkward older sister" persona, the digital star has found success in multiple areas. Last year, her book "Grace's Guide" became a New York Times bestseller shortly after hitting bookshelves. Her podcast debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. Thousands also turned up in more than 20 cities to watch her "#NoFilter" comedy tour with fellow YouTubers Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart.

"I think TV is starved for things that feel fresh," said Jeff Olde, E!'s executive vice president of programming and development. "In a world on TV that is increasingly looking the same, you have to do bold experiments. I think that's important because E! simply can't be talking about what we are seeing in pop culture, we have to do the things that are then talked about."

The network, mostly known as a destination for celebrity-fueled reality shows and pop culture news, has long staked its fortunes on the Kardashian reality franchise — which in July will get a boost with a spin-off series about Bruce Jenner's transition to life as a transgender woman.

But in the last year, E! has grappled with a string of messy departures and shifts in programming. Chelsea Handler signed off from "Chelsea Lately" to do a new talk show for Netflix. The death of Joan Rivers threw "Fashion Police," the popular red carpet show she hosted, into chaos, leading the network to put the show on hold until fall.

At the corporate level, NBCUniversal announced in September that it was grouping together Bravo, Oxygen, E! Entertainment and Esquire Network to form Lifestyle Network Group under Frances Berwick, president of Bravo and Oxygen Media. E!'s president of three years, Suzanne Kolb, exited, and veteran marketer Adam Stotsky was named general manager.

For years, E! has been a moneymaker for NBCUniversal. In 2014, the network hauled in $207 million in net ad revenue, according to estimates from industry consulting firm SNL Kagan. But with cable networks experiencing widespread ratings drops, finding new ways to draw in returning viewers and attract new ones has become crucial in a constantly evolving media landscape.

Now at the midway point of its eight-episode season, "The Grace Helbig Show" has become a critical experiment for E! in helping shape the future of the network. The hope is that Helbig, one of YouTube's most high-profile stars, will help broaden and diversify its audience by attract young digital viewers to television.

"If you're going to gamble on someone, why not gamble on someone who's already built an audience?" said Paul Verna, an analyst at EMarketer. "This may become a gamble that doesn't pay off ... but that still wouldn't invalidate at all the concept of leveraging stars from digital platforms."

On Wednesday, Helbig hosted YouTube's "Brandcast," the annual New York bash aimed at drawing in more advertiser dollars to videos on the site.

"Because people come to my channel specifically to watch videos, your ad will resonate a whole lot more because they are engaged," Helbig told the Brandcast audience. "How do I know this? Well, in the last year, I've experienced firsthand how my engaged fan community drives sales."

Helbig, who first started posting on YouTube during her senior year of college, recounted for Brandcast her dues-paying climb from waitress-wannabe comic to performer on the YouTube comedy outlet My Damn Channel. Convinced that she needed greater control and ownership over her work, she launched a channel of her own, which led to her E! talk show.

Though digital stars are increasingly making leaps into traditional entertainment spaces, Helbig is one of the first to be the face of a network series.

It hasn't been easy bridging digital and traditional audiences. Despite E! pulling out all the marketing stops for the show, with a media blitz that included a Helbig appearance on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," ratings for the show so far have been modest.

With Joel McHale's popular "The Soup" series as its lead-in on Friday nights, the debut of Helbig's show April 3 drew in a mere 227,000 viewers. That figure climbed to 262,000 viewers by episode three. The fourth episode saw a slight dip (182,000 viewers), but it overlapped with Jenner's "20/20" special on ABC, which drew in 16.9 million viewers. Including live-plus-three-day figures (which tallies how many people watch the show after recording it), the show to date has been viewed by more than 3 million total unique viewers.

All four episodes of the show have averaged 142,000 viewers in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic and 519,000 viewers overall tuning in during prime time, according to Nielsen. The median age for the show is 27.

"I'd lie if I said I don't love ratings.... I would love for each and every one of Grace's digital audience to watch the show," Olde said. "But we also hope she makes new fans. I'm just looking to see if people are talking about it."

The desired 13-to-24-year-old age bracket watches 11.3 hours of free online video and 10.8 hours of subscription online video weekly, according to a recent study published by Defy Media, a digital content company. Those figures are nearly twice the time reported for free online TV offerings from broadcast and cable networks (6.4 hours) or for regularly scheduled TV (8.3 hours).

Others have used similar strategies in bringing relatively unknown people, who are stars on the Web, to TV. Viacom-owned Comedy Central, for example, turned the Web series "Broad City," featuring comedians Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, into a highly successful network show. Amy Poehler serves as an executive producer for the series, which also boasts guest stars such as Seth Rogen and Kelly Ripa.

Helbig's show may not garner huge TV ratings, but it has certainly been popular on the Web and ignites tons of social media engagement. Segments from the show posted on Helbig's YouTube account rack up as many, if not more, viewers than an average episode. And in the first week, the show was trending worldwide, according to Nielsen SocialGuide daily rankings.

"I'm actually obsessed with #GraceShow and it's kind of a problem...whelp!" wrote one fan on Twitter.

To engage with her fans on a television platform, the new host tries to have both a traditional and digital star join her in her segments. She takes tips and suggestions from her viewers, such as how she should sign off on her next episode and what she should ask her upcoming guests.

For Helbig, who is used to being valued by numbers (the number of clicks on her videos, the number of subscribers on her channel, the number of followers on social media), ratings are not necessarily a measure of success.

"You start to get desensitized to numbers as a meaningful thing," Helbig said.

Back on set of episode two, Helbig finished her segment with guests Tyler Oakley, a YouTube star with about 6.7 million subscribers, and comedian Nick Kroll.

The majority of the show takes place in the heavily decorated house. The kitchen has a "honey wall" (decorated with actual honey packets) and a chalkboard wall (where there are doodled polka dots and taco drawings as well as the show's title carefully crafted in bubble letters).

Bedrooms are converted into work spaces for the production team. The garage acts as the green room. There are ironic inspirational messages such as "failure is definitely an option" framed on various walls.

"Thanks for doing this!" she said to Kroll. "Can we take a photo?" The two then snapped a selfie.

Five minutes after posting it to her Instagram account, the photo already had almost 5,000 likes.

"Nailed it," Helbig said.

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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