Daytime television has "The View." Now YouTube has its own chatfest called "IMO."
The Web show, whose initials are recognizable as "In My Opinion" to those fluent in messaging shorthand, deals with dating, texting faux pas and other pressing topics relevant to teens and tweens. Its hosts are nearly as well known to these young viewers as ABC's Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg are to an older generation. Before taking her seat on "IMO's" canary yellow couch, 16-year-old Bethany Mota launched a YouTube channel that has attracted nearly 85 million views of her fashion and beauty tips. Co-host Meaghan Dowling, 17, has amassed close to 350,000 Twitter followers with her witty staccato observations about teen life — "I'm not flirting, I'm just extra nice to someone who is extra attractive."
This past spring, they gathered in a playfully colorful new Los Angeles production studio with the show's other hosts, another Twitter prodigy, Shelby Fero, and actress Gracie Dzienny of the Nickelodeon show "Supah Ninjas." Together with celebrity guest Daniella Monet of "Victorious" they explored the subject at hand: Boys — and how to ask them out. The conversation veered, as it often does with any group of teens, to another topic altogether: the frequently embarrassing mishaps with the Apple iPhone's auto correct software that's designed to fix typos but can introduce texting gaffes.
"I had a really awkward moment in sending a text to my dad," Monet confessed, as three cameras recorded her remarks. "It was a nightmare. I was just like 'wait one sec,' well ... It was like 'Wait one sex'."
The digression quickly became its own short-video segment, "Darn You Auto Correct!"
"IMO" is among 15 new shows in production for Awesomeness TV, a YouTube channel for teens and tweens that formally launched Thursday. It is the brainchild of film and television producer Brian Robbins, who drew upon decades of experience making children's entertainment to construct this online network, complete with sketch comedies, game shows and sports programs. Robbins hopes to hold on to his audience as its attention drifts to new screens.
He is among a number of Hollywood professionals selected to create nearly 100 new channels for the Internet's dominant video site. Some have received as much as $5 million to underwrite development of the original digital content. For Google Inc.'s YouTube, the investment in storytelling is part of a strategy to increase the amount of time viewers spend on the site — and in the process bring in more ad revenue.
"With YouTube's monthly audience of 800 million people, many in Hollywood see the opportunity to learn, collaborate, innovate, interact and ultimately reach a massive global audience," said Robert Kyncl, head of content at YouTube. "Since we started discussions with potential new partners, we've seen an incredible response." YouTube has pledged to commit more than $200 million to promote the new channels.
The lure of Silicon Valley's cash has attracted big-name players, including "CSI: Crime Scene Investigations" creator Anthony E. Zuiker, musicians Jay-Z, Madonna and Pharrell Williams, actors Amy Poehler, Rainn Wilson, Jessica Alba and Sofia Vergara. For these entertainment professionals, YouTube represents an opportunity to create shows absent the heavy-handed influence of studio executives. Should a concept catch fire online, they're free to adapt these characters and stories in film or TV.
Robbins is not alone in courting young audiences online. Former child actor R.J. Williams has parlayed his longtime industry connections into the launch of the Young Hollywood Network, a pop culture channel that features celebrity interviews with up-and-coming actors from a studio in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The Walt Disney Co. struck a partnership with YouTube to create short-form, family-friendly programming for Disney's own website as well as on YouTube. And television producer FremantleMedia distributes a whimsical "Pee-wee's Playhouse"-style children's cooking show, "Yummyfun Kooking," online.
"They're realizing that the fragmented viewership is a real challenge that they have to address," producer and media strategist Jess Weiner said of the evolving landscape. "Their anxiety is: How do you maintain and retain audiences?"
An aha! moment
Robbins experienced his digital awakening while vacationing with his two young sons in Miami Beach.
For the duration of their weeklong stay at the Fontainebleau, sons Miles and Justin never once turned on the big-screen television in their suite. Instead, the brothers — who at the time were 11 and 13 — watched episodes of "The Simpsons," NBA basketball highlights and wrestling matches — on their Mac. "That sort of blew my mind," said Robbins, adding ominously, "This is the end of the world as we know it."
The episode distilled for Robbins a fundamental change in the viewing habits of young audiences. Although kids under age 18 still watch a lot of television — more than 100 hours a month, according to Nielsen estimates — they're watching fewer shows live and devoting more time to videos online. In fact, there has been a 61% spike in the time spent viewing Internet video in just the last two years, according to the most recent research.
"Brian has had tremendous success over several decades producing high-quality original programming targeting teens and tweens, but there is a lot of data suggesting that these viewers are watching less and less traditional television," said Brent Weinstein, head of Digital Media at Robbins' agency, United Talent Agency. "So if you were going to create a network from scratch that was targeting that audience ... would you create a linear broadcast or cable channel, or would you create a digital network? We felt strongly that it was the latter."
Robbins' Internet conversion began in 2009 after a meeting with Lucas Cruikshank, the Nebraska teen who created one of the most popular characters on YouTube, the squeaky-voiced, hyperkinetic Fred Figglehorn. At the time, Robbins wasn't thinking about mining the Web for creative talent — he was too busy making movies and producing five television shows. That night, though, he came home to find a gathering of his sons' friends — and turned the hangout session into an impromptu focus group.
"I was like, 'Do you guys know who Fred is?' And they all start doing the Fred voice,'" said the trim, energetic Robbins, 48. "And for some reason I said, 'Would you guys want to see a Fred movie?' and without any hesitation, one of them said, 'Tonight?' I was like, 'Wow. OK.' So I went back to the office and [said], 'We're going to make a movie out of Fred.'"
Instead of pitching the concept to Paramount Pictures, Robbins took the unusual step of bankrolling the movie — together with Cruikshank's management firm, the Collective. He hired "Family Guy" executive producer and writer David Goodman to develop a script, and he held a marathon, five-day-long brainstorming session to develop the outline of the story. Keeping to an accelerated production schedule, befitting the movie's indie-sized $1-million budget, Robbins and his team started preparing for filming before the first draft had been delivered.
Shooting was completed five months after Robbins' initial meeting with Cruikshank.
The impulse to work quickly to capitalize on Fred's surging online popularity was rewarded. "Fred: The Movie" attracted 7.6 million viewers when it premiered on Nickelodeon, the highest-rated basic cable movie of 2010 among viewers ages 2 to 11. The ratings success spawned a television movie sequel — with a third movie, "Fred Goes to Summer Camp," which airs this summer — and a regular TV series, which joined the network's Monday night lineup in January. Robbins has been involved in all these productions.
"After the success of Fred, I was sitting around going, 'This is really amazing. This kid from Nebraska, without any money, without any Hollywood ability, built this on his own. Then, we came along and turned it onto this thing,'" Robbins said. "So why don't we reverse-engineer it? Why don't we start putting sketch comedy up on YouTube?"
Robbins pitched YouTube's Kyncl on the concept for Awesomeness TV in January 2011.
Short and funny
Robbins, a former child actor, has devoted his career to projects with a youthful sensibility, from the CW and WB dramas "One Tree Hill" and "Smallville," to the long-running Nickelodeon sketch comedy show "All That." His film credits are dominated by such comedies as "Wild Hogs," "Big Fat Liar," a trio of Eddie Murphy movies and a picture due out next year, "The To Do List," starring "Saturday Night Live's" Andy Samberg.
Those influences and an awareness of what kids find entertaining are reflected in Awesomeness TV's first shows. The network's eclectic offerings — dramas, a "Man vs. Food" reality TV-style eating contest and a sitcom set in high school bathrooms, among others — seek to grab as diverse a young audience as possible. The common denominator is Robbins' belief that young viewers like his sons, who have been weaned on short-form Web videos, crave brevity in their entertainment.
A film director and producer, he struggles to coax the boys to go with him to the movie theater, underscoring what he sees as a permanent change in audience tastes. "The short attention span is what I'm talking about.... That's why I'm really excited about this space," Robbins said. "I like making stuff that's four and six minutes long. Who says something needs to be 22 minutes long or 48 minutes long? That's why YouTube really works for short-attention-span theater."
One teen drama, "The Runaways," is reminiscent of Robbins' WB series. In the opening episode, a parent is found dead and two teens go missing on the same day. The mystery unfolds through a series of interviews with prep school students, who are questioned by police in the principal's office. The story is told in flashbacks, recounted in five-minute installments.
"The Blow-Up Guys" is a Web version of the "Jackass" movies, with absurd stunts and gross-out gags. Five teenage boys from Utah engage in goofy antics, including one in which they leap from a second-story balcony onto a trampoline, then bounce into a kiddie pool filled with milk.
Seeking to capitalize on a fan's hero worship, Awesomeness Sports features professional athletes including Denver Nuggets guard Aaron Afflalo, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun sharing tips. Other shows highlight the accomplishments of young athletes, such as Jordan Romero, who at age 13 was the youngest person to summit Everest.
"Our programming philosophy is we want to make stuff for our audience that isn't on anywhere else. Because everything's short-form, we can try a lot," Robbins said. "Nickelodeon and Disney, they do a certain thing and they do it really well. We're not trying to go in their lane."
Robbins' partner in the 15-person Awesomeness TV production company, television veteran Joe Davola, drew parallels between the upstart YouTube channel and another programming renegade, MTV.
"When Brian told me about this channel, it reminded me of the early days of MTV, because it was maverick, it was brand new, it was something the young people were getting involved with," said Davola, who worked as a producer at MTV. "It felt like this was the beginning of the next generation of what's happening in media."
With this new media platform, Robbins can't rely on old promotional techniques for attracting an audience to his online shows — there won't be any billboards on Sunset Boulevard or bus sides heralding the launch of "IMO." That's why, for "IMO," he selected hosts with established social media followings, and those familiar to TV audiences, in hopes of encouraging these fans to sample the new program. With luck, the new viewers will promote Awesomeness TV's programs to their friends.
Awesomeness TV doesn't have advertising factored into its start-up budget, Robbins said. In fact, an entire year's worth of programming for the venture — five new shows a day, five days a week, for 120 original episodes — will cost less than the budget for the television pilot of "Smallville."
Robbins is optimistic about capturing the hearts of teens and tweens — but as he says, he isn't giving up his day job. "We're still producing our three shows on television.... We're about to make a third 'Fred' movie, and we just shot 'The To Do List' for CBS Films," he said. "But I would be lying if I said I'm not just about all-in — meaning, this is becoming my primary focus."
Digital Disruption: Another story in a series about how evolving technology is changing the media experience.