YouTube Enlists Big-Name Help to Redefine Channels
YouTube is enlisting Hollywood’s help to reach a generation of viewers more familiar with smartphones than TV remotes.
The online video giant is aiming to create 25 hours of programming per day with the help of some of the top names in traditional TV. The Google-owned site is spreading its wealth among producers, directors, and other filmmakers, using a $100 million pot of seed money it committed last fall. The fund represents YouTube’s largest spending on original content so far.
YouTube believes it is laying groundwork for the future. While the number of traditional TV watchers has leveled off in recent years, more and more people are watching video on mobile phones, tablets and computers, especially the 18- to 34-year-old age demographic that advertisers covet.
The idea is to create 96 additional YouTube channels, which are essentially artists’ home pages, where viewers can see existing video clips and click "subscribe" to be notified when new content goes up.
Well-funded videos by a select roster of stars are likely to be more watchable than the average YouTube fare of cute cats and webcam monologues. YouTube is betting that a solid stream of good content will attract more revenue from advertisers, bring viewers back frequently and bolster its parent company’s fledgling Web-connected-TV platform, Google TV.
The cash has enticed some of TV’s biggest stars, including "Fast Five" director Justin Lin, who directs episodes of "Community," ’’CSI" creator Anthony Zuiker and Nancy Tellem, the former president of CBS entertainment.
Zuiker is teaming up on a horror series for YouTube after observing his own family’s behavior. His three pre-teen sons spend more time on phones, iPads and computers than watching TV these days.
"We want to jointly take the risk with YouTube and roll the dice on the future," Zuiker says. "The old regime is going to falter because everybody thinks the TV is the only device that really counts, and that’s just not the case."
For producers, it’s a chance to create shows that are completely free of meddling from major studios. They can also stay relevant with a younger crowd whose viewing is moving increasingly online.
Several new channels such as the extreme sports-focused Network A and Spanish-language Tutele have launched already. YouTube hopes to have them all up and running by this summer.
"This was really about galvanizing the ecosystem at large," says Alex Carloss, global head of original programming for YouTube. "We see the portfolio (of funded channels) really representing the best of TV meeting the best of the Web."
YouTube isn’t the only Web video service that has started to pay for original content. Netflix Inc. recently launched the original series "Lilyhammer," while Hulu premiered "Battleground." But YouTube videos tend to be under 10 minutes, instead of fitting into traditional half-hour or hour-long TV slots. And aside from a few guidelines, ultimate control is given over to the artist, including what is uploaded and when new episodes appear.
YouTubers also get away with far edgier stuff than the middle finger that rapper M.I.A. flashed during the Super Bowl halftime show.
Although YouTube’s entire investment is less than half of what some studios spend on one blockbuster movie, about a third of the new channels were awarded to scrappy YouTube veterans who already know how to make it big online while keeping production costs low.
YouTube expects to recoup what it spends on the grants by sharing ad revenue the new videos generate.
At Maker Studios, which received money for three new channels, the funds have turbo-charged an already teeming operation that has about 160 full-time staff spread across several buildings crammed with props and computers in the west Los Angeles suburb of Culver City.
On a recent visit, two scenes were being shot in an alley. One was for a parody of a Christmas movie trailer. The other was for a new series about a crime-fighting van called "Si, Es I, Pepe."
Maker cranks out about 300 YouTube videos each month at a bare-bones cost of about $1,000 each.