The future of television isn't up in the air – it's up on the computer
TV's newest stars have millions of fans, but you won't see them on the goggle box . By Joe O'Shea
They are the biggest TV stars in the world, with millions of fans and huge commercial clout. But you have never seen them on your TV.
And, unless you are a teenage girl into fashion or a teenage boy into gaming (although there is plenty of cross-over), the names PewDiePie and Meghan Rienks won't ring a bell.
However, PewDiePie (in reality a 24-year-old Swede called Felix Kjellberg) and Meghan have a global audience in the tens of millions. Kjellberg alone (as PewDiePie) has had a staggering 3.6 billion views for his short YouTube videos on popular computer games and apps.
And the online entertainment trend they represent is now a multimillion-dollar industry, with some of the biggest names in the business scrambling to get on board.
Forget online subscription channels such as Netflix or digital media players like Apple TV, the new frontier in the bewilderingly fast-moving world of digital entertainment is the MCN, or Multi Channel Network.
Major Hollywood studios including Warner Bros, DreamWorks and Disney have all recently bought MCNs, with the just-concluded Disney deal for MCN outfit Maker Studios worth €838m.
And that kind of money takes MCN stars and their throwaway YouTube videos and puts them in the same frame as mainstream movies and network TV.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, MCNs are companies that work with multiple YouTube channels, finding and assisting creators in producing and funding content, management and audience development.
Think of them as virtual studios working only online, and that the 'stars' are kids in their bedrooms with video cams.
MCNs find talent, mostly young DIY presenters, comedians, musicians and animators, who have already attracted a big following on YouTube and social media, and invest in turning them into global personalities.
Teenagers can go from recording short videos in their bedrooms or backyards about anything from sweatshirts to skate-boarding to becoming the star of shows as big as Top Gear.
Or even bigger.
Meghan Rienks is a typical example of the new breed of MCN celebs.
A blonde, hyper-active 21-year-old from San Francisco, Rienks started recording short videos – usually featuring herself chatting a mile-to-the-minute about make-up, boys and fashion – and soon found a big following on YouTube.
In June 2010, she launched her own YouTube channel and, 410 short video-packages later, she now regularly gets a quarter of a million or more views per video.
And, as companies producing make-up, clothes, accessories and everything else teenage girls like to buy realise, that is a huge audience willing to take fashion and lifestyle advice from their virtual BFF (or best friend forever).
Rienks bills herself as an actress, others call her a lifestyle and fashion guru.
Her website invites companies with new product lines to get in touch with her, and her videos tend to ignore the tight product placement and advertising rules followed by traditional broadcasters.
Meghan has no problem in literally pushing brand names into the camera lens. And millions of teenage girls will take note.
Her style mirrors that favoured by most MCN stars, super-hyper-active, chatty, silly (with lots of pulling faces into the camera) and witty in a way that will almost certainly irritate anybody over 18 years of age. The chaotic, virtually incomprehensible (to adults, at least) YouTube videos produced by Gaming Guru PewDiePie take teen slang, in-jokes, obscure computer game references and general silliness to Olympian heights.
However, the major players in the entertainment industry have seen past the silliness and are willing to bet billions of dollars on this new phenomenon, as they chase the ever-elusive teenage market.
George Strompolos, boss of MCN network Fullscreen, says companies such as Warner Bros and Disney are simply following the audience, which is now online.
"MCNs tend to speak to a demographic that is increasingly spending less time on cable television and traditional media outlets," says Strompolos. "They're spending their time online and, when it comes to video, they're watching YouTube and they're building strong connections with the stars on YouTube.
"Companies like Fullscreen, Maker, and others in the space are incubating and developing content with those next-generation stars.
"These stars are a source of content and they're a source of ideas and talent. They have real star power."
With three of the biggest studios already on board, what the online digital entertainment business is now seeing is a gold-rush, as other companies scramble to sign up the most attractive MCNs and their rosters of talent.
There are millions being spent – even if those spending it have yet to work out how they will recoup that investment. The generation of kids brought up on free YouTube videos are unlikely to start paying for the content, even if it is important to Disney's bottom-line.
The new breed of self-made, YouTube personality certainly knows how to talk to fashion and social media-obsessed teenagers, mostly because that is exactly what they are themselves.
In one respect, it is the latest step in the democratisation of fame.
If you have the ideas, talent and self-belief, all it takes is a laptop and a video cam.
However, the appearance of global corporations on the scene also raises bigger questions, such as; can the teens watching MCNs tell the difference between a Virtual BFF and the Corporate Hard Sell?