The week of August 31, 2014

The modern-day star factory of AwesomenessTV

By Audra Schroeder

On the Internet, teen popularity can often be measured in clicks, subscribers, and followers. For teens on YouTube, those numbers have evolved, and they’re birthing a new type of TV star, one native to YouTube and relatable to other digital creators. These are the metrics of entertainment empire AwesomenessTV.

AwesomenessTV is an online multichannel network aimed at teens and tweens. It has 1 million subscribers on its main YouTube page, which is multiplied by the millions of subscribers its teen and tween personalities have acquired. AwesomenessTV has a successful crossover development deal with Nickelodeon, relatable talent with their own mini-empires, and investors with deep pockets. The company’s good at seeking out advertiser-friendly creators who can convey the AwesomenessTV brand, bringing more money and attention to YouTube.

The network is a collective push at documenting the teen experience with shows like IMO, Cheerleaders, and new series Shipping Julia. It’s currently home to prank bros Janoskians, boy band 5SOS, Jennxpenn, Cimorelli, Meghan Rienks, and Lia Marie Johnson, who just hit 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube and stars in the Nickelodeon movie Terry the Tomboy. Sister act Cimorelli has more than 2.5 million YouTube subscribers; the Janoskians have more than 1 million and just landed a movie deal with Lionsgate.

The network has become a modern-day star factory. So what does it mean to be a teenager and have millions of fans tuning in to watch your evolution?

AwesomenessTV is the creation of Brian Robbins, who has a history with programming geared toward kids: He starred in the ’80s sitcom Head of the Class, and produced One Tree Hill and Smallville. In 2010, Robbins self-financed and produced Fred: The Movie, based on Lucas Cruikshank’s popular YouTube character, Fred Figglehorn, and sold it to Nickelodeon. He saw the crossover potential there and started AwesomenessTV in the summer of 2012 as a way to incubate and showcase other crossover stars like Cruikshank.

In May 2013, DreamWorks bought AwesomenessTV for $33 million in cash, one of the largest deals of its kind. Earlier this year, the team there launched DreamWorksTV, aimed at more of a family audience, one in which parents are watching YouTube with their kids. In April, AwesomenessTV acquired multichannel network Big Frame. Last month, the network debuted Awesomeness Music, a partnership with Universal Music, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and Loud Records’ Steve Rifkind. Robbins is currently working on a documentary about singer Austin Mahone, who will be part of the Awesomeness Music roster.

There’s a lot at play here. The DreamWorks partnership could be worth $117 million if AwesomenessTV hits its earnings markers this year and next. Add in the brand synergy—like Meghan Rienks’s Shipping Julia, which is a tie-in with Royal Caribbean, or the series Summer With Cimorelli, which debuted as part of a branding partnership with Subway—and it’s clear the AwesomenessTV roster comes in handy as brands attempt to find ways to market old ideas to a new generation.

“The DNA of our company is to make great content.” —AwesomenessTV COO Brett Boutier

Brett Boutier, AwesomenessTV’s chief operating officer, says Robbins knew how young audiences move from platform to platform, following people they like. When YouTube announced its original programming initiative, Robbins was one of the first people they approached.

“Our audience doesn’t just watch programming,” Boutier said. “They like to participate in the programming.”

He explains the demographic is “teens and tweens,” and “definitely more girls than guys.” Earlier this year, it was announced teen Vine personalities Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas would get their own movie on AwesomenessTV. The two collectively have more than 11 million young, mostly female fans, who are willing to support them and have the collective social power to move the needle wherever they want.

“Because teens are native to digital, it’s about first how they connect with stars, and where they connect with stars,” Boutier said. “And whether that’s YouTube or Vine or Instagram or on a mobile app, the vehicle itself is less important than the quality of the content, and the connection a fan has with a personality.

“The Nash Grier and Cameron Dallas story is a perfect example of that,” he added. “These guys started on Vine, and have amassed an enormous following, and are relatively new to the YouTube platform, but they started their channel, and immediately have millions of views. So there’s this appetite whether the talent is making outlandish six-second videos, or if they’re releasing a three-minute song on YouTube.

“The DNA of our company is to make great content.”

Lia Marie Johnson is packing for a trip, and she’s a little distracted as we talk. It’s late July, and the 17-year-old is heading to Texas for a bit. We talk about normal teenage things: She’s trying to binge-watch Breaking Bad when she has time. She loves how Miley Cyrus is “not afraid to do anything, and she’s so out there.”

“We’re the same sign. We were born on the same day.”

Johnson grew up in Virginia and California and started performing at a young age. Some of her first YouTube clips are covers she sang when she was “really little.” She’s part of the first generation where every experience is potentially online first, which points to AwesomenessTV’s success with natives who grew up on YouTube rather than TV. YouTube is now the embarrassing family photo album for many kids, and Johnson reacts accordingly when asked about her digital adolescence.

“I hate them, and I don’t know if they’ve been taken down yet,” she said of the clips. “I ask my mom all the time to take them down. She’s like, ‘No, they’re so cute.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I hate them. They’re the worst.’”

Johnson’s characters are relatable, which is a big part of her draw. Her most popular one, Terry the Tomboy, just debuted in TV movie form on Nickelodeon, and the network is no doubt trying to replicate Fred Figglehorn’s success. Johnson eschews notions of beauty and popularity, and offers a refrain to be yourself, the foundation for AwesomenessTV personalities, but Terry was actually a character given to her by the network.

“I had just started working with AwesomenessTV, and they wanted me to do some sketches,” Johnson said. “So they sent me this sketch for a character named Terry the Tomboy, who didn’t have a country accent at first. I didn’t know if I could pull it off. I’m such a girly girl in a way.”

There’s a subtle push for archetypes within the AwesomenessTV yearbook: The guy’s girl (Johnson), the cool girl next door (Jennxpenn), the class clowns (Janoskians), the dreamboat (Hunter March).

Still, Johnson says her character’s been allowed to evolve. She thinks there’s a message for young girls to not feel forced to wear makeup or do their hair, and Terry conveys that in skits where Johnson’s comedic talent shines through.

Johnson’s been with AwesomenessTV since before it paired up with DreamWorks, before anyone really knew what the network would be. She says it’s important that AwesomenessTV is bringing YouTube to TV, and that the content is “just as cool as all the other TV right now.”

The key to building a fanbase is just “doing your thing, and people will come.”

One of YouTube’s most successful subcultures is the beauty vlogger demo, which is driven by multiplatform stars like Bethany Mota and Michelle Phan, two personalities who have made their channels their brand. AwesomenessTV is no different.

Meghan Rienks is an AwesomenessTV beauty and fashion vlogger with 1 million subscribers. Her new show Shipping Julia debuted in early August, and AwesomenessTV partnered with Royal Caribbean for a teen update on the Romeo and Juliet love story.

Seventeen-year-old Teala Dunn is another fashion and beauty vlogger with 400,000 subscribers, and co-hosts the AwesomenessTV show IMO, which is sort of like a teen version of The View. She started her YouTube channel in 2012, which was then mostly music and “weird videos.” Last year, she created another channel devoted to videos that were “more true to who I am.” She’s also been with AwesomenessTV since the early days.

“That was before I took YouTube seriously,” she said. “Now that’s my network. I’m at Awesomeness more than I’m at my house.”

“Life is so short, and people waste time worrying about people who don’t like them.” —Teala Dunn

Dunn says her fanbase is mostly girls ages 13-19, but she has older viewers as well. She embraces the idea that good videos come when you just—you guessed it—be yourself. “I just think it’s about being who you are, and if people gravitate to that… A lot of people put on an act to get followers.”

Dunn thinks the beauty and fashion vlog scene is so popular right now because “everyone can learn a different trick, get inspiration. I would always watch videos; I’m a shopaholic and I’m always at the mall, so the [videos] are like making new friends. I’m always watching other beauty gurus. It feels like you’re shopping with them. It’s about getting inspiration.”

When asked if she thinks of herself as a role model, especially for women, she pinpoints one of the reasons AwesomenessTV is important in this new teen-driven landscape.

“A lot of my younger viewers go through bullying and depression,” she said. “And I just try to make them laugh, or put a funny caption on Instagram. Life is so short, and people waste time worrying about people who don’t like them. The school year is coming up, and people want to reinvent themselves so people will like them. No, be who you are.”

There have been a few banana peels in the be-who-you-are/say-what-you-want practice. In July, a year-old Vine video of Nash Grier screaming the word “fag” was recirculated by fellow YouTube star Tyler Oakley, who called him out for spreading misinformation and homophobia. Last summer, Russell Simmons and AwesomenessTV released “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape,” a controversial skit that involved “Harriet Tubman” seducing a white man and recording their sexual exploits for leverage, as part of the launch of their joint YouTube channel, All Def Digital. The video was slammed for being racially insensitive and has since been removed.

There have been a few banana peels in the be-who-you-are/say-what-you-want practice.

As much as the message is “be yourself,” AwesomenessTV is very consciously branded to look like AwesomenessTV. Creators who moved on carried fans with them, but there is a certain polish and uniformity that comes with the AwesomenessTV machine. There are some growing pains to be had; the new star system, and how much control creators have over their content, is in flux across many social media platforms.

“When you look at the world of talent and stars,” Boutier said, “if you go back 50 years ago, it used to be that the studio was the marketer, and the stars would show up for work and do their thing, but the studios ran the marketing machine. Now, the talent themselves have a marketing platform. They can star in a show and activate their fanbase on Twitter or Instagram or YouTube or Vine, and get their fans to show up. “It’s unbelievably powerful. It’s a partnership.” The metrics of teen popularity are powerful, but evolution is essential.

Photos via AwesomenessTV | Remix by Jason Reed