LOS ANGLES -- 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.
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.
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 new YouTube channel for teens and tweens. 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; and 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 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 its 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?"
Robbins experienced his digital awakening while vacationing with his two young sons in Miami Beach.
During their weeklong stay, sons Miles and Justin never once turned on the big-screen television in their hotel 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 percent 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."