‘Black Box TV’ Season Five Premiere Showcases YouTube’s Dark Side
By Liz Shannon Miller
One of the more novel approaches to creating drama content for the YouTube world, “Black Box TV” returns today for its fifth season — and kicks off with an extremely personal look at what creator/director Tony E. Valenzuela called “The dark side of YouTube.”
Alone in the desert, a vlogger (played by Wilson Cleveland) makes a new “Travel Tuesday” video for his YouTube channel, and in between takes, we see the glimpses of weariness that come with working non-stop to please an online audience. Like most “Black Box” episodes, the events of “How to quit YouTube” quickly take a turn towards terror, but even before that point, the horror of being trapped in the cycle has become clear.
The episode, which came from a Twitter pitch by Cleveland and was shot with a tiny, intimate crew in the Joshua Tree desert, is an effort to capture what it’s like to not be a YouTube success story, and instead be one of the creators struggling to make it on a daily basis with only a few thousand subscribers.
In short, the episode poses the question “When someone from the 99 percent tries to play by the rules, what will they be willing to do?” Cleveland said in a phone interview. “[The character] became about literal likes, and that can be a hard thing. You watch your views become little votes of approval.”
“Kids are sold this idea that it’s beyond connection — it’s big business,” Valenzuela said via phone. “Which kills the idea that it’s about sharing stuff. The point is not to be a YouTube star — the point is to connect with people. I see my friends get really into it, get really burnt out. The ones I really respect have found a way of doing it — but it’s a character they’ve created to survive uploading content every single day.”
“There was no script,” Cleveland said about a key scene halfway through the short, where his character confesses his frustrations with the YouTube grind. “We did it three times, and there was one where I just let it go. For me, personally, that’s how I’ve felt about [YouTube] over the last year and a half.”
“It encapsulates the dark side of what it is to be a YouTuber, because what we’re talking about is much more the norm than the exception,” Valenzuela added. “Suddenly we have YouTubers retiring [just one recent example: Ray William Johnson]. To me, that was such an insane concept. So that idea of [the character] wants to leave but he can’t — that’s really how that whole thing came together.”
And if there’s anything Cleveland and Valenzuela knows well, it’s the pressure to keep going. Cleveland is an established actor and producer of web content going all the way back to 2006’s “The Temp Life,” while Valenzuela’s first narrative web series, “2009: A True Story”, premiered in 2008.
“Black Box TV,” which premiered in 2010, initially drew attention by casting well-known YouTubers like Phil DeFranco and iJustine in high stakes thriller shorts; the anthology approach (think “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits”) allowed for versatile storytelling and a wide range of cast and subject matter.
Notably, it was one of the pre-existing channels selected for the first round of YouTube’s $100 million content-funding experiment, at which point Valenzuela partnered up with “CSI” creator Anthony E. Zuiker for expanded episodes.
The “BBTV” brand extends beyond narrative content to prank videos and live-streamed visits to haunted locations — one of which, a stay at the haunted Villisca Axe Murder House, not only helped inspire “How to quit YouTube,” but an upcoming feature film which was financed and produced by Ketchum Labs.
“Working on that film, we became very tight creatively — we had a very productive experience and wanted to continue it,” Ketchum Labs founder Kevin Abrams said via phone, “[Ketchum is] a small digital studio for creating production, and we want to give Tony as big of a toolbox as he can to go out and make content.”
This not only includes plans to help Valenzuela explore other mediums, but a potential “Black Box TV” season six. Because despite the message of “How to quit YouTube,” Valenzuela is still fully committed to the scene.
“I could never retire or quit from YouTube — could never really turn off that switch,” he said. “YouTube has changed my life.”