Tuesday, February 3, 2015

YouTubers in 2015 Part 1: The appeal of the Annoying Orange

One of the aims of this blog, now 2 years into its existence, has been examining and then breaking down the economics of the creative industries in the digital era. Why? Because in a little over a decade we’ve gone from industries worth double and sometimes triple digits billions to revenues that are now valued at a fraction of that as people move from purchasing CDs, DVDs, movie tickets, books, newspapers, games, etc to streaming music, playing freemium gamesgetting news on the web and on apps, getting getting what used to be called radio through podcasts, and getting what used to be called TV shows and movies via Netflix, YouTube, or torrent sites.

Today’s post will be a kind of turbo history of YouTube, from its earliest days as a repository of nothing in particular — people’s home movies, random clips of trips, pets, and kids, illegal uploads of old commercials and TV shows and music videos — to today, where it accounts for more 18-34 year old viewers than any television network. 

The first video was posted to YouTube on April 23, 2005. In those days randomness ruled, as nobody knew what the platform was best suited for, and the wild west mentality of uploading things for which didn't hold licenses or copyright was on its way to becoming a new norm. Within a year and half of the chaos of the early days Google acquired the startup for $1.65 billion and today, just short of ten years since its inception, YouTube is a primary platform for a new generation.
This journey from digital dumping ground to entertainment industry power broker was very much on my mind recently when I attended a digital media conference in Toronto. And one thing that’s becoming increasingly clear is that we’re moving toward a world of (at least) two YouTubes. One is the world of the weird and quirky ‘Internet famous’and the other is the world of YouTubers of more mainstream and even corporate appeal. 

Yes, the eccentrics and anomalies are still there, and always will be, but as YouTube evolves and matures, we have the co-existence of the weirdo world of YouTube with the one that favours those with millions of views per videoas well as agents, managers, and video network affiliations Pioneering philosopher of the digital age David Weinberger has come up with a characterization for today’s interesting underbelly of YouTube. He calls it “mass net fame”, and explains here how the Internet in general and YouTube in particular “… enables mass marketing of culture, resulting in old style fame being foisted on us, as well as the Bieberization of talent that first emerges bottom-up and then gets absorbed and re-emitted by the mass media. The Net allows for both of these modalities simultaneously.”

With this cultural tug of war in mind I bring you highlights, in two parts, from the recent Digital Dialogue 2015 conference held in Toronto. Today, it’s the pulpy story of the Annoying Orange (at least I didn’t say juicy) and in the days to come I’ll follow up with a post on the day’s other panelists, amazing lists guy Matt Santoro and beauty blogger Rachel Cooper of the RachhLoves channel.

So, you may ask, who is this Annoying Orange? Well, as the name suggests, he is an orange, but not just any piece of citrus fruit. This one has 2.5 billion YouTube views and over 4 million subscribers and a kind of media empire comprised of sub-channels on YouTube devoted to characters from the series.

From the Annoying Orange camp we heard from Bob Jennings, producer, and voice actor for the series, most notably as Grapefruit.

On the origins of the Orange

Jennings, who got his degree in film from Boston’s Emerson College and had a day job at the American Film Institute, told the crowd it all goes back to January 2006 and the Wicked Awesome Films YouTube Channel. He and his friend Dane Boedigheimer uploaded a video. Jennings remembers: “Within two minutes we had a comment…from Australia…so I said I’m in!”

It was so early in YouTube’s history that there were no thoughts about money. People just made videos and uploaded them because they loved doing it. 

The Orange expands

When asked by the panel's moderator YouTube’s David Brown on the moment when he got hooked on YouTubing Jennings said: “On YouTube you don’t need permission. It’s a two-way stream with the audience. But things really started to pop in 2009. There was nothing like Annoying Orange online. Even our thumbnails didn’t look like anyone else’s. We got a huge young audience and it really became the unofficial cartoon of YouTube. Then other YouTubers like Shay Carl got in touch with us wanting to be involved and then James Caan called and wanted to a Sonny Corleone character talking to a grapefruit." 

                            James Caan takes on a new thespian challenge as Jalapeno

The Orange and its Audience

Jennings tells the crowd that the primary metric was number of views up until recently. Now it’s ‘watch time’, or how long viewers stick with your video, also where your videos get placed outside of YouTube (e.g. posted on Facebook, a primary driver of traffic to YouTube . "And actually gamers taught me a lot about making content that makes people keep coming back."

The Orange Moves to TV

In 2011 in one of the first deals to see a YouTuber move to television it was announced that Annoying Orange would be seen on cable television channel The Cartoon Network. But Jennings admits: “The show is way bigger online than on TV. The problem is we have the brand and advertising dollars backwards…with more of them going to TV when they really should be showing up online.”

The Orange joins a YouTube network, or MCN (multi-channel network)

For a lot of YouTubers the path to optimizing revenues is by way of an MCN, or network that aggregates thousands, if not tens of thousands, of YouTube channels, and strikes deals with brands and advertising agencies that are more favourable than deals available to an individual YouTuber. That’s the theory at least, and for some it pans out. Not so for the Orange, however. “The Collective (Annoying Orange’s network) hasn’t paid us for 5 months. The story is in the Hollywood Reporter if you want to know more. Now we’re in a legal battle.” Jennings continues: “So we just started our own company, New Media Trader, to connect brands with creators."

Click here for Part 2 of this YouTubers in 2015 post.