Peter Kafka

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How to Build “Entertainment Tonight” for YouTube: Young Hollywood Learns on the Job

Just about a year ago, YouTube launched its “channels” plan, where it handed out millions to dozens of video creators in the hopes of making the site more TV-like.

The project is very much an experiment — both for Google and the video creators it has funded. Here’s a report card from one of them: R.J. Williams, a former child actor turned TV producer, who created a “Young Hollywood” channel for YouTube.

Williams had already been using that same brand to create “Entertainment Tonight”-style programming for other online outlets, like Yahoo and Hulu. But the new channel was supposed to cater specifically to YouTube’s audience. And as Williams has figured out over the last nine months, that’s different than the rest of the Web.

Peter Kafka: You guys were one of the first of the new YouTube channels to launch, back in January. How’s it going?

R.J. Williams: Great. We started out doing 1.5 million, 2 million views a month. Now we’re at 5 million, and we’ve earned back our advance. We’ve also learned a lot. There have been findings that have had us shift our programming strategy, and that’s helped tremendously. There were things I wish we knew earlier.

The biggest eye-opener for me was going to VidCon [the Web video convention] in June. I don’t think I truly understood the audience until I went there. It’s much younger than I expected. It was really 13-18 year old kids, primarily female.

You didn’t know the YouTube audience was made up of teenagers?

You just really don’t know with YouTube. For us, before the channel, when we put stuff there we were primarily using repurposed content we’d created for other outlets. Our brand’s core is really 18-34. That’s on Yahoo, Hulu, So we would cater toward that. But YouTube is different.

A good example: During Oscars, we did a thing with Melissa and Joan Rivers, talking about fashion dos and don’t. Because that who’s on E!, and TV Guide, and they love it. We put it up on YouTube, and it didn’t perform — 13 to 18-year-olds probably had no idea who Melissa and Joan Rivers are.

So who do they like?

[YouTube make up princess] Michelle Phan. We put her up, we got hundreds of thousands of views right away. It’s not just a YouTube personality, but it’s that sort of demo, that sort of sensibility. You put up someone like Selena Gomez, huge numbers. Zach Efron, huge numbers. Anything “Hunger Games.” One of our highest-performing videos in the last few months was with the “Hunger Games” cast. But it’s not even the main stars, it’s the smaller names. That brand has such a rabid fan base, and that is the YouTube audience. You have “Hunger Games” in that tag and title, it’s going to go through the roof.

Have you changed the way you produce the shows themselves?

Yes. We’re using a little less polish. I think they like it a little bit more raw. I think they like to see what really is happening. We’ve been experimenting in the past few weeks with people talking into the camera. Because you see what is really performing well on YouTube — it’s a person sitting in front of their computer, just talking.

But you built out this nice studio in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons that’s supposed to look like a “real” talk show. And now you’re trying to degrade that look intentionally?

Yeah, we are a little bit, actually. It wasn’t our intention going in, but we are.

Like distressing jeans?

Yeah, we really are. We’re encouraging talent to talk directly to the camera and break the fourth wall. And we’re finding YouTube likes that, too. Yahoo, not at all. Hulu, not at all. AOL, not at all. That’s similar to television. Here they want interactivity.

And are you changing the way you handle distribution?

Yes, now we’re outreaching to other blogs, getting people to seed it. And we’re shooting photos of everyone that comes through, and we’re syndicating it to Getty images, and we’re seeing that those are getting picked up, and attributing to the Young Hollywood studio, and we think that’s driving search.

Earlier this year you had this notion that you would be a “barker channel” for other new YouTube channels — like a Leno for the YouTube set introducing your audience to other YouTube stars. Has that worked out?

It has. We’ve done 37 of them so far, with most of the main channels. We do see a pop in those videos. It helps because they’ll help cross-promote you.

Anything that hasn’t worked?

Scheduled programming. Disaster. YouTube didn’t tell us to do that, but I know that was something they thought was important. It was a disaster on our end. We were putting up a new video at 10 am every day and rushing around to get the video up on time. Didn’t matter. Instead we’d see the long-tail effect. People don’t necessarily go to the video that day. It’s days after, it’s weeks after.

A good example: We put up a Simon Cowell video three weeks ago. It did well at the beginning, but it’s 600,000, 700,000 views now, and the bulk of it’s been in the last week. Why? Because “The X Factor” has been on the air, the machine’s going, more people are searching for it, more people searching for Britney Spears.

I think there needs to be consistency of one new video a day; I think that’s important. But if you say, “Here’s the time”, what the point? Especially if you’re not going live. Why go to 10 am to see this video if I can see it at my own time? And I think that’s why people embrace digital more than television.

How much input and support are you getting from YouTube?

They have the YouTube Next Lab. And you work closely with them when you launch. And that’s very helpful. You get a detailed report — here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not. And then you are left to your own devices.

For marketing, there’s zero marketing support. At the launch, there’s a little bit. But we knew that going into it. When we signed up, they made it very clear. It wasn’t, “You’re going to get home page placement.” They really said, “How are you going to market it?” That was part of our pitch process. I hear from other people who are frustrated. But YouTube has said that from Day One — they are the platform, and that’s it.

The flip side of it is that they’ve been very hands-off creatively. Which they also said from the beginning. But when I’ve done television stuff, the networks say that, too. And a few weeks later you start getting very detailed notes, and you have to follow them. I’ve seen it happen to the biggest producers. And I honestly thought that was going to happen with YouTube, and it hasn’t.

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