The anchorman wears “Bite Me” T-shirts instead of a suit and tie, has traded the traditional anchor’s desk for a red couch decorated with “Angry Birds” dolls, and delivers hyper-caffeinated headlines like a wacky Walter Winchell for the Web.
He’s YouTube’s Philip DeFranco. His humorous, opinionated 10-minute news roundup attracts as many as 3 million views per episode — at its best, surpassing the average viewership of such recognizable programs as CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” HLN’s “Nancy Grace,” MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and even Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
Now DeFranco’s work will get greater exposure with the opening of the Republican National Convention, as part of YouTube’s new Elections Hub. He will join ABC News, Al Jazeera English, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Univision in providing convention news and analysis and ongoing coverage of the campaign through the Nov. 6 election.
YouTube’s political effort reflects the growing importance of the Internet as a source of campaign news for people younger than 30. The campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney have uploaded more than 600 videos to their respective YouTube channels since April 2011, and those campaign videos, and others mentioning the two presidential candidates, have attracted almost 2 billion views on YouTube, said Olivia Ma, YouTube’s news and politics manager.
“We’ve seen there is a huge demand for political news on YouTube,” Ma said.
Google Inc.'s YouTube is not alone in recognizing the shifting media landscape. Microsoft Corp. said it would provide live coverage of the presidential debates through its Xbox Live, which is available to the 40 million people who access the Internet service through their game consoles.
Most Americans still get their campaign news from cable news outlets, according to a report released this year by Pew Research Center. Still, the number of people going online to keep abreast of political news has nearly tripled since 2000 — even though the growth has leveled off in the current election year because of a lack of interest among the younger users who are the most avid consumers of Internet news, Pew found.
DeFranco, who works under a stage name for safety reasons, connects with a young, predominantly male audience. Two-thirds of “The Philip DeFranco Show’s” 2.1 million subscribers are boys and men ages 13 to 34, who are enticed to the four-day-a-week segments by what DeFranco describes as “shallow news” (think Kardashians or Prince Harry cavorting in Las Vegas in the buff). But he also tackles weightier matters, such as Ecuador granting asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
On a recent morning, the 26-year-old DeFranco decamped to his studio to record a segment about nine Russians activists suing pop star Madonna for supporting gay rights during a concert in St. Petersburg, where promoting homosexuality to young people is banned. He stands in his studio facing a camera mounted on a tripod supported by a trio of paint cans. To his left, propped on a metal step-stool, are his MacBook laptop and a giant iced coffee.
Working without a script or a teleprompter, DeFranco reads online news accounts on his laptop before riffing maniacally about the Madonna lawsuit — starting and stopping eight times before nailing his opening line. “Russia, I love you. You give us flexible gymnasts, mail-order brides and those little dolls that have little dolls inside of them,” he says. “But today you’re making me do something I hate and that is defending Madonna.”
It takes roughly 25 minutes for DeFranco to complete the fleeting segment, which will be edited into the jump-cut, staccato style familiar to his viewers.
DeFranco lacks any formal journalism training. The Brooklyn-born host caught the YouTube bug as a pre-med student in North Carolina, when he began uploading videotaped responses to other YouTubers’ videos. He left school in 2007, when YouTube began offering its most prolific content creators a share of advertising revenue.
Initially, DeFranco struggled to survive, at one point living out of his car for a week before moving in with his father in Tampa, Fla. — on condition that he return to college.
“I signed up for classes — but I never actually went. I waited tables and I would make videos when he was asleep,” DeFranco said. “It was something that I really, really loved.”
DeFranco’s passion and perseverance were ultimately rewarded: “The Philip DeFranco Show” has attracted more than 950 million total video views since it launched in 2006, dwarfing YouTube channels operated by such traditional outlets as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and ABC News.
In January, he started a sister channel, SourceFed, financed as part of YouTube’s $100-million original channel initiative. Its staff of nine produces four or five topical news videos a day, each exploring a single topic. Now, DeFranco and his staff work out of a new 9,000-square-foot production studio in Woodland Hills, which also houses a T-shirt and poster business that helps support the Web venture.
Last week, he and his team were furiously preparing to cover one of the biggest news events of the year – as first-time, credentialed journalists. A whiteboard in executive producer James Haffner’s office is filled with coverage plans for upcoming conventions, with segments including a primer on how to vote and an examination of Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s economic plan.
“We’ve been pre-taping like crazy,” DeFranco said. “Because, in a way, we are representing YouTube, and it’s something that I take very seriously.”
Even his father was impressed when his son hosted a popular Discovery Channel show this month.
“It wasn’t until my dad saw me on ‘Shark Week,’” DeFranco said, “He was like, ‘Oh, OK, I get it.’”