By DAWN C. CHMIELEWSKI Los Angeles Times
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" 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 observations about teen life - "I'm not flirting, I'm just extra nice to someone who is extra attractive."
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.
"IMO" is among 15 new shows in production for Awesomeness TV, a 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.
"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.
Silicon Valley's cash has attracted big-name players, including "CSI: Crime Scene Investigations" creator Anthony E. Zuiker, Jay-Z, Madonna and Pharrell Williams, and actors Amy Poehler, Rainn Wilson, 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.
"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 United Talent Agency.
Robbins' Internet conversion began in 2009 after a meeting with Lucas Cruikshank, the Nebraska teen who created one of the most popular characters on YouTube, the squeaky-voiced, hyperkinetic Fred Figglehorn. At the time, Robbins wasn't thinking about mining the Web for creative talent - he was too busy making movies and producing five TV shows. That night, though, he came home to find a gathering of his sons' friends - and turned the hangout session into an impromptu focus group.
"I was like, 'Do you guys know who Fred is?' And they all start doing the Fred voice,'" said Robbins, 48. "And for some reason I said, 'Would you guys want to see a Fred movie?' and without any hesitation, one of them said, 'Tonight?' I was like, 'Wow. OK.' So I went back to the office and (said), 'We're going to make a movie out of Fred.'"
Instead of pitching the concept to Paramount Pictures, Robbins took the unusual step of bankrolling the movie - together with Cruikshank's management firm, the Collective. He hired "Family Guy" executive producer and writer David Goodman to develop a script, and he held a five-day-long brainstorming session to develop the outline of the story. Keeping to an accelerated production schedule, befitting the movie's indie-sized $1-million budget, Robbins and his team started preparing for filming before the first draft had been delivered. Shooting was completed five months later.
"Fred: The Movie" attracted 7.6 million viewers when it premiered on Nickelodeon, the highest-rated basic cable movie of 2010 among viewers ages 2 to 11. The success spawned a television sequel - with a third movie, "Fred Goes to Summer Camp," which airs this summer - and a regular TV series, which joined the network's Monday night lineup in January.
Robbins' partner in the Awesomeness TV production company, television veteran Joe Davola, drew parallels between the upstart YouTube channel and another programming renegade, MTV.
"When Brian told me about this channel, it reminded me of the early days of MTV, because it was maverick, it was brand new, it was something the young people were getting involved with," said Davola, who worked as a producer at MTV. "It felt like this was the beginning of the next generation of what's happening in media."