When Jawed Karim, a Bangladeshi-German Internet entrepreneur, uploaded an 18-second video called “Me at the Zoo” to his new site called YouTube in April of 2005, he had no idea he was about to make history.
A fresh-faced 25-year-old Karim can be seen talking to the camera about how elephants “have really, really, really long, um, trunks.” As the company celebrates its 10-year anniversary, that elephant video has been viewed more than 22 million times.
Karim — and fellow YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen — quickly proved just how remarkable their little idea was: the video streaming site, acquired by Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion, now boasts 1 billion active users and serves 4 billion video views per day.
Over the years, the site has developed its own universe of superstar talent and independent “networks.” AwesomenessTV, for instance, the 18th highest-ranked network on YouTube, recently announced its latest spinoff — a network dedicated entirely to millennial moms.
Now traditional broadcasters want a piece of the action.
Last month HBO placed a six-episode order for “High Maintenance,” one of the most highly acclaimed online comedies, about a nameless marijuana deliveryman in New York City. And AwesomenessTV saw one of its biggest hit shows, “Side Effects,” premiere on E!
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” Tubefilter founder Josh Cohen told TheWrap. “There have been singular instances of online video personalities transitioning to traditional media platforms, but never in this quantity at this scale at this speed.”
The YouTube mania shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
In 2013, DreamWorks Animation paid $33 million for AwesomenessTV. Warner Bros. has invested $18 million in Machinima. Disney purchased Maker Studios for $500 million. And last September The Chernin Group and AT&T picked up a controlling stake in Fullscreen, one of YouTube’s biggest networks, for a reported $200-300 million.
The reason is simple: those YouTube channels reach bigger audiences than most TV networks. More importantly, they draw in the right kind of people — younger viewers with a strong aversion to cable bills.
But not every YouTube star has been able to translate his or her online success into ratings gold.
Grace Helbig, arguably one of YouTube’s biggest names, has been drawing millions of viewers online for years. But a month into her new gig as host of E!’s “The Grace Helbig Show,” her fans have yet to follow her to her new TV home.
Her inaugural episode barely drew a 0.09 rating in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic. The third installment did a bit better with a .15 in the key demo and 227,000 viewers.
While multiple insiders have told TheWrap that Helbig was chosen to take over Chelsea Handler‘s spot, her ratings are nowhere near her predecessor’s, who at her peek drew more than a million viewers per episode.
“[Helbig] is the first one that’s really crossed over with her own show,” Cohen said. “I think there’s going to be a learning curve along the way about how well these online stars transition and how best to market to them.”
It’s a problem that was evident during last year’s Daytime Emmy Awards.
In an effort to home in on the “cord-cutting” generation, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hired four popular social media personalities to cover the Daytime Emmys‘ red carpet event.
The livestream — hosted by online stars Brittany Furlan, Lauren Elizabeth, Jessica Harlow and Meghan Rosette — was declared a “disaster” by numerous media outlets as well as daytime TV insiders in the wake of what the Washington Post characterized as “wildly unprofessional” interviews and racy jokes.
“What’s it like to be a black man on a soap opera these days?” Harlow asked “Bold and the Beautiful” star Lawrence Saint-Victor, whom she introduced as “a beautiful chocolate man.”
Furlan let loose another major offender while interviewing “General Hospital” star Ryan Paevey.
“We’re going to get you away from us before we rape you,” Furlan said.
Experts say that while YouTube stars can potentially bring vast built-in networks of die-hard fans, they lack the experience and sensitivity of traditional TV talent who’ve worked their way up the broadcast ladder.
“A lot of people will be moved up more rapidly than they ought to be, but it will ultimately be their skill levels and their knowing how to do their job that will help them grow and move forward,” said veteran Los Angeles-based talent agent Laurie Jacoby. “Are people from YouTube going to be all over network news? I don’t think so.”
Still, many have been able to cash in on their digital popularity with remarkable results.
King Bach, real name Andrew Bachelor, is perhaps one of the biggest online success stories. A Vine comedian with nearly 12 million followers and 3.7 billion video loops, Bach graced the cover of New York Magazine in April 2014 with the headline “The Weird Wide World of Internet Celebrity.”
Since becoming a Vine star, Bach has launched a TV career, starring in “Black Jesus,” a popular Adult Swim show on Cartoon Network. He’s also appeared in 13 TV or film projects just in the last 12 months.
“Bach is taking his inherent natural comedic talent that he perfected on Vine and he’s translated that into all these projects beautifully,” founder of LA-based media company theAudience, Oliver Luckett, told TheWrap. “Unlike Helbig, Bach transcends just being an online personality.”
Jack & Jack, a pop-comedy Vine duo, have been able to translate their online success into 1.2 million iTunes sales of their music. What makes their success so interesting is the fact that they achieved it while refusing the help of any record label.
“The Jacks have gone directly to consumers,” Luckett said. “They basically proved that artists can be wildly successful by going straight to their fans.”
A movie starring Cameron Dallas, another huge YouTube and Vine star with more than 18 million followers, reached No. 1 on iTunes just one day after its video-on-demand release. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson saw their web series “Broad City” get picked up by Comedy Central. Its Season 2 finale drew nearly 700,000 viewers and 0.43 in the key demo. Not quite YouTube numbers, but good enough to get a third season reorder.
YouTube beauty vlogger Michelle Phan raked in an estimated $84 million in revenue from her Ipsy beauty product subscription service last year alone. Her online success even caught the eye of a L’Oreal executive who offered Phan her own makeup line.
“I think Phan is one of the best examples — if not the best example — of someone who’s been able to use her online video celebrity to become a media entrepreneur,” Cohen said. “It’s incredibly impressive that she has her own makeup line, her own monthly subscription box that grosses millions of dollars in revenue.”
DJ Flula Borg landed a supporting role in “Pitch Perfect 2” thanks to his half-million YouTube subscribers; Colleen Ballinger, a.k.a. Miranda Sings, saw her book debut at No. 3 on Amazon’s Top Sellers list; and Zoella, the YouTube sensation also known as Zoe Sugg, sold 78,109 copies of her debut novel “Girl Online” in its first week of release, surpassing the first-week sales of J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” published in 1997.
“Sugg is an excellent example of how deep the relationship is between this new breed of celebrity and their fans,” Cohen said. “Because of this deep relationship that these celebrities cultivate with their audiences, their viewers are more likely to buy their books or their makeup line, go to their concert or support them in any other way.”
Tyler Oakley is another big YouTube success story. Seven years ago he uploaded his first video. Today, he has more than 7 million subscribers. He’s ranked by SocialBlade as the 102nd most popular figure on YouTube with more than 391 million video views. That, along with 4 million followers each on Twitter and Instagram, 2.3 million on Facebook and 1.1 million on Vine, has made him one of the most prolific social media stars on the planet.
Oakley, an impish 25-year-old with brightly-dyed hair, has become known for his passion for gay rights, suicide prevention, fast food and One Direction. In recent years, he’s been seen on “Insider Tonight” and has interviewed live from the 2014 Kids Choice Awards red carpet, as well as this year’s Grammy Awards. Last year, Oakley premiered a live-show tour, “Tyler Oakley’s Slumber Party,” featuring him in pajamas doing skits and interactive segments with the audience.
“They bring this sort of big sister-big brother element that traditional celebrity doesn’t have,” Oakley’s manager, Lisa Fillipelli told TheWrap. “People always ask, ‘Well, what is it that your client does?’ And I’m like, ‘What do they do? They’re professional best friends.”
Matt Donnelly contributed to this article.