By Aymar Jean Christian
What can network TV learn from the runaway success of a no-budget YouTube sensation?
I have six subscribers to my YouTube channel, so you can imagine my jealousy when the news broke that the most popular YouTuber, “Fred,” became the first vlogger on the site to reach one million subscribers. When I last gave a presentation on YouTube at a conference, he was at 950,000, so it was only a matter of time, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.
Not enough has been written about Fred, the ADD-afflicted six-year-old character who reached this milestone in less than a year. Sure, CNN hascovered him, as have a few other blogs, but Fred is, at this moment, a sensation who is rewriting the rules of online television, marketing and promotion.
Excuse the pun in the title of this article, but it is interesting to contrast “Fred’s” success with a program like ABC’s Better Off Ted, a well-liked show that seems destined for the chopping block. Once compared to Arrested Development in the Chicago Sun-Times, and deemed “clever satire” by The Hollywood Reporter, Better Off Ted is a good show whose failure makes little sense unless you understand the changing nature of comedy and media production.
Like most network TV shows, Better Off Ted is merely a pastiche of other shows we’ve seen before: zany workplace comedies like Scrubs, 30 Rock, and Ally McBeal, mixed with the witty slapstick of more avant-garde TV programming like Arrested Development. I can imagine the network’s pitch meeting right now: “It’s Ally McBeal meets Arrested Development, and we can get Portia de Rossi! She hasn’t done anything since we cancelled those two shows faster than our subscription to the Times.” This is everything that’s wrong with television, and that’s coming from someone who watches an embarrassingly high number of shows. Television has become so derivative that ABC actually redid a once-cancelled comedy, Cupid, which unfortunately might get cancelled as well.
Television networks are doing some interesting things, I’m the first to admit, but mostly in drama and not often enough. The now-cancelled Kings is evidence of a network taking a huge chance. But innovative comedy is hard to find, and if I hear of another cop show I’m going to vomit on my remote. Of course, pay cable is doing better. Contrast In the Motherhood and Cupid with Showtime’s United States of Tara—a show easily adaptable to network primetime—and the difference becomes clear. Reviving TV comedy is a top priority in the business, as nearly half of the pilots being produced for next year will be comedies.
So back to “Fred.” Fred, played by 15-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, has created a genuinely new entertainment form. His high-pitched, accelerated voice is addictive. The show’s fast pace and short length are guaranteed to hold any young person’s attention span, and his obvious idiocy is ironic enough to deflect criticism. Moreover, Cruikshank has reinvigorated traditional promotion models—releasing videos late in the week to encourage weekend buzz among his audience of tweens. His hard work has paid off. Between product placements—the film City of Ember and mobile device Zipit have appeared—and revenue from YouTube’s partner program, Cruikshank reportedly makes well into six figures a year, tens of thousands of dollars a month.
Filmed in his house in the Midwest, I imagine Fred costs virtually nothing to produce. His filming techniques are rudimentary. Unlike network TV shows, whose production costs start in the millions and increase as bigger stars are included, Fred is cheap entertainment. But he has done something new, and the TV world would be wise to pay attention (though there are unsubstantiated rumors of show or movie in the works).
Conservative by nature, corporations do not like to take huge risks, but in order to retain their dwindling audiences, they’re going to have to go crazy and stop taking their meds, just like Fred.