But Brian Robbins warns children’s TV broadcasters that if they don’t make more shows for mobile consumption ‘you’re going to see the audience keep eroding’
Sunday 6 October 2013
Brian Robbins of AwesomenessTV, which was bought by DreamWorks nine months after launching, speaking at MIPCOM
AwesomenessTV launched in the summer of 2012 as a YouTube multi-channel network (MCN) aimed at tweens and teenagers. In May 2013, it was acquired by DreamWorks Animation for $33m plus up to $117m in bonuses for hitting future earnings targets.
Now in October 2013, its main channel has more than 900,000 subscribers on YouTube and 176m views, but its wider network has 25m subscribers, nearly 2bn views and 65m monthly visitors. A rapid rise, to say the least.
Founder and chief executive Brian Robbins says that AwesomenessTV is capitalising on changing media habits of its young audience. “They don’t watch television any more, at least the way we used to watch television,” he said during a keynote speech at the MIPCOM conference in Cannes.
Robbins said that children are still sitting on their sofas watching videos, but the source is now YouTube and the devices are smartphones and tablets. “It’s not just my kids, or kids in the US. It’s kids everywhere,” said Robbins, adding that half his company’s views come from outside the US, and that half its views and comments come from mobile devices.
“For kids their devices provide a gateway to their friends, and a means to consume the content that they love,” he said. “If you want to reach and engage kids, you have to go where they go, and that’s online.”
Robbins also explained that AwesomenessTV launched with 20 shortform shows, despite lots of advice (“even from YouTube”) to focus on three or four instead.
“Us adults, we like to eat meals, but kids snack, and they snack a lot. Where I might have a few marquee shows on my radar, kids, because they are on their devices all day and night, have both the time and appetite to consume a lot of content, especially around the things they’re passionate about,” he said.
Robbins also said that the people watching AwesomenessTV are also “curating and creating” their own content on YouTube: which includes sharing their favourite shows with friends, but also filming their own responses.
“We’re in this new era of entertainment where the lines between consuming content and participating in it are blurry,” he said, before pointing to the global nature of YouTube, with 40% of the 80,000 channels in AwesomenessTV’s network produced outside the US.
“Kids really don’t care where the content is coming from, just as long as it speaks to them,” said Robbins. “The bottom line is that creating videos that are funny, shareable and culturally relevant is the best way to engage this audience.”
Robbins showed the trailer for a new show called Side Effects, which blends story and musical covers in Glee-esque style, with a central character who suffers from “musical hallucinations” due to the medication that she’s taking.
The show will be delivered in 5-6 minute episodes, even though the production quality makes it look like a show that could easily live on broadcast TV as full-length episodes.
“I think YouTube right now is a shortform experience: kids love it for that, and it’s where their attention span is,” said Robbins. “I don’t love it as a filmmaker to be perfectly honest with you, but I love feeding their passion for content.”
AwesomenessTV has experimented with taking some of its content to TV, signing a deal with Nickelodeon to produce a half-hour comedy sketches show collecting some of its popular online skits. It premiered in July, and according to Robbins it doubled the ratings for its time-slot on that network.
“We want to play in both worlds. I think there’s a great opportunity to start stuff on YouTube, develop it, build an audience and then drive it elsewhere in other forms, like we did with Nickelodeon,” he said.
However, Robbins spoke at length about the challenges facing TV networks like Nickelodeon, walking a line between pitching AwesomenessTV as a new production partner for those companies, and as a fearsome new competitor poised to disrupt their businesses.
“What’s happening online today is very similar to what happened in television 25 years ago,” he said. “Just as branded cable networks like ESPN, CNN and MTV and Nickelodeon transformed television, a new generation of online channels is going to do the same thing,” he said.
“I don’t think we’re replacing television. Let’s be really clear: people are watching more TV than ever, but we’re filling the periods of time that these kids have, because they have these devices… If my kids aren’t entertained every second, they lose their minds! And we’re here to fill that gap.”
A still from Side Effects
What about the challenges facing this new generation of online video networks? Most make their money predominantly from ads on YouTube, with regular speculation this year that those revenues may not yet be enough to fund profitable businesses – at least not those investing heavily in original shows.
Robbins, whose career has included producing TV shows Smallville and One Tree Hill, admitted that it’s still much more profitable to have a popular TV show than a popular YouTube show, but sees that changing.
“The advertising model is catching up very slowly. Right now TV is getting this much money, and YouTube is getting this much,” said Robbins, with gestures to indicate huge and tiny ad revenues respectively.
“But we’re starting to see a shift. For next year we see a big shift, and that shift will continue,” he said. “I also think we’ll create properties online that will become very valuable franchised properties that will transfer across media.”
That’s one reason why DreamWorks bought AwesomenessTV so early in its growth. Robbins said the company plans to spend around $10m creating shows this year, from bigger projects like Side Effects to smaller videos designed for viral sharing.
“There’s a handful of companies in Los Angeles right now who I think are going to be the next generation of cable networks,” said Robbins, although he said there is no plan for AwesomenessTV to expand into feature films under the wing of DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“No, he wants me to stay in my lane and stay out of his business!” joked Robbins, before outlining the likely form of collaboration with his new parent company. “What we’re doing is giving the studio another platform to develop content, reach an audience and ultimately help them market the movies.”
Like other MCNs, AwesomenessTV is thinking hard about expansion, with plans for a bigger presence in countries like Brazil and the UK, where its videos already have big audiences. And like other MCNs, the company is also looking beyond YouTube.
“We’re going to live everywhere: YouTube is just the beginning. AwesomenessTV will have a mobile app, we’ll be on Xbox and PlayStation and every other device you can think of that kids are using,” he said.
The key to this expansion – and a phrase that’s over-used at TV industry conferences – is “good content”, but Robbins added a twist to the familiar claim that quality is what will separate winners from losers in the entertainment world.
“At the end of the day good content wins. What’s different is with this audience, you have to constantly refresh that content,” he said. “They will not just watch repeats over and over again. Those days are over.”
That led to more speculation about the future for the big, established television networks aiming for a similar audience of tweens and teens. What would Robbins be doing if he was in charge of Nickelodeon in 2013, for example, to respond to changing habits of their audience, and disruptive competition from the YouTube world?
“The one thing that I would do: I don’t think they make enough content. If you look at the primetime schedule on most of those networks, there are three to four original shows on, and it’s not enough. It used to be enough when there were only two channels, but now with a mobile and a tablet, I have so many choices,” said Robbins.
“That’s the big problem: the model is broken. Their shows are relatively expensive to make, so they can only afford to make a certain number of them. So they are sort of stuck, and until they figure out how to change that model, you’re going to see the audience keep eroding.”