One of this fall's big programming events wasn't actually broadcast on TV. Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a live-action series geared toward the launch of the new Xbox 360 video game, has become a hit for YouTube, where it runs on the young male-oriented Machinima Prime channel.
YouTube is taking on the traditional TV model in a big way, with the help of major stars, original programs like Halo 4 and big events like Felix Baumgartner's space jump, which broke YouTube user records on Oct. 14. A year after YouTube parent Google unleashed an aggressive $100 million initiative to launch around 100 original programming channels (and committed $200 million to market the channels), viewership on the platform was up 11 percent year-to-year in September.
It's a slow build, and so far YouTube's original programming initiative hasn't produced a hit that was big enough to enter the public consciousness. But according to newly released comScore data, YouTube users spent an average of 419.1 minutes watching video in September, compared to 378 minutes in Sept. 2011.
Google is apparently encouraged enough to invest more money in original YouTube channels, although this time the company is doing it more selectively. The company confirmed this week that among the 100 or so previously funded channels, about 40 percent would receive additional funding. Channels not making the cut may still continue, but on their own dime.
YouTube credits the increase in time viewers spend watching videos to the longer-form clips, which are being programmed by the likes of Modern Family's Sofia Vergara (the young Latino-targeted NuevOn), The Office's Rainn Wilson (the meta-physical channel SoulPancake), CSI creator Anthony Zuiker (Blackbox TV), Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels (AboveAverage) and producer Jon Avnet, whose scripted channel WIGS produces short-form dramas starring Jennifer Garner, Michael C. Hall, Dakota Fanning, Stephen Moyer and others.
YouTube's top 25 channels average more than one million views a week, and 20 of the channels now boast more than 100,000 subscribers. "What we set out to do was really kick start online video," says Jamie Byrne, global head of content strategy. "We've been successful in bringing great creators to the platform."
That includes Avnet (Black Swan), who had been kicking around a web series idea with Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment) when the YouTube opportunity arose. WIGS programs, which all take the name of their lead characters, include Blue, about a prostitute (Julia Stiles) who caters to kinky clients; and Christine, which follows a woman (America Ferrera) on a night of speed dating.
"Our pitch to talent essentially is, 'Here's where the world is going, do you want to be a part of it?'" Avnet says. "We've got a lot of actors who think highly of us, and agents and managers who — despite the fact that their clients aren't making any money — aren't sabotaging our efforts to do this. The actors have been calling it 'actor therapy.' It's without frills, you come in, you learn your lines and you work. We're going to be able to generate some very interesting stuff with some interesting people."
Brian Robbins, who a decade ago produced signature Nickelodeon shows like All That, is now behind the youth-oriented channel AwesomenessTV. Robbins says he's simply going to where the teens and tweens are now. "I saw my kids' viewing habits and how they were just as comfortable watching stuff on their iPhones as they were on the big flat screen in the living room," he says.
AwesomenessTV runs sketch comedy clips starring a troupe of young performers, but also premiered an ambitious drama, The Runaways, that Robbins says would fit in on a network like The CW. A second season of The Runaways is about to premiere. "I look at it and go, 'I can't believe this costs what it costs,'" he says. "There's no difference between that and any show on The CW."
Machinima, the No. 4-ranked YouTube channel operator, is now making news by partnering with Universal Cable Prods. to run Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, the long-awaited prequel movie to the Syfy series. The two-hour event, cut into 10 episodes, launched Nov. 9 on Machinima Prime and will eventually air in 2013 on Syfy. Such a move is unprecedented.
Making original programming for online is obviously not the same as producing for TV, as Hollywood veterans like Avnet and Robbins have learned. For one thing, celebrities aren't a guaranteed draw. "You think, 'Let's get this star from Nick or Disney and give them a show by themselves,' but that doesn't necessarily translate," Robbins says. "But you get the right YouTube talent and mix it with one of those stars, that's the right secret sauce that works."
Robbins says younger viewers are accustomed to seeing videos done in "vlogger" style (when talent looks into the camera and speaks directly to the viewer). "When you and I watch TV we lean back," he says. "When people are watching things online they're leaning forward and participating. It has to be immediate, it has to grab you."
Avnet says he's still figuring out how to attract viewers to this little portion of the web. "And then the question is, how do you build an audience in this world, because it's obviously very different than what we're used to, where you're spending $100 million to do a series on a network or $30 million to do a series on cable."
Although the budgets are miniscule compared to broadcast or cable, WIGS productions are fully unionized. "It was an expensive decision," Avnet says. "We've created a couple hundred jobs. Our goal is in the third cycle to pay people a cable wage. Not the top dollar, but it would be something they could live in Los Angeles with."
Adds Robbins: "We spend less money than we would on network TV. But we're also free to take more risks and experiment. I'm putting up three pieces of content seven days a week of the year."
Avnet is also still waiting to see how to determine what's a hit on YouTube. "When you get a video with 400 million views, yeah, it's a hit, but who's making money on it?" WIGS has lined up sponsorship deals with advertisers like Unilever, American Express and Geico, but Avnet doesn't rule out eventually going to a paid subscription model like HBO.
Would Avnet or Robbins ever consider moving one of their YouTube franchises to a traditional TV or film platform? Not now — but never say never. "There's no question we could sell some of these," Avnet says. "And we may. But not in the next week or two. I think the bigger we get, the stronger we get, and the more their value is."
The producers behind the YouTube channels say they believe it's just a matter of time before users adapt to more long-form programming. "It's really my main focus right now," says Robbins, who's planning a new musical dramatic series, featuring top YouTube talent, for next year.
Says WIGS' Garcia: "The web is increasingly a platform where things are becoming of quality. It's not just a place for cats on skateboards anymore."