A Network Tries to Mash Up TV Style and YouTube’s Youth
Hoping they bring along their millions of fans, Brat TV puts social media stars in more traditional scripted series; split up in real life, together on screen.
The cast of Brat TV’s ‘Chicken Girls,’ now in its sixth season.
[PHOTO: BRAT TV]
Annie LeBlanc is like a lot of American teenagers: When the 15-year-old is not with her boyfriend, she likes hanging out with friends, watching movies and sharing updates with her Instagram followers—all 8.6 million of them.
Ms. LeBlanc has been on YouTube for the better part of a decade. She runs her own channel and attracts a combined social media audience of roughly 28 million. That kind of reach is what digital upstart Brat TV banked on when it cast Ms. LeBlanc in its breakout YouTube show, “Chicken Girls,” which follows a group of friends on a high school dance team. Episodes in its sixth season, which began earlier this month, run about 20 minutes. The premiere has 2.5 million views (and episode two, 1.8 million), enough to make the season premiere the No. 3 live-action episode to premiere on YouTube this year, according to data from Tubular Labs, a video analytics firm.
Annie LeBlanc in ‘Chicken Girls.’ PHOTO: BRAT TV
Other digital-first networks have found success on YouTube. AwesomenessTV—now owned by ViacomCBS, which produced Netflix’s movie franchise “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”— and networks like Rooster Teeth, aimed at niche audiences, also create scripted shows for the platform. But Brat TV is quickly gaining traction among Generation Z, says Rob Gabel, CEO of Tubular Labs.
In the show “Crazy Fast,” viewers follow members of the Attaway High track team including Rafa, whose parents were deported to Ecuador when he was young. In the vampire drama “Red Ruby,” Flora leads student protests against fracking (when she’s not being threatened by vampires). In “Chicken Girls,” Indiana Massara plays one half of a lesbian couple. “So many people DM me to say this character helped me come out to my family,” Ms. Massara says of the messages she gets.
The Tubular data show that in February, Brat TV ranked no. 211 out of 98,000 channels in the entertainment category on YouTube, putting Brat ahead of name brands like TMZ and The View.
Brat TV is one of a handful of YouTube producers (like NBC and Condé Nast) that control which ads run on their channels. Direct ad sales—for spots, product placement and advertorials featuring Brat TV actors playing their characters—represent 75% of revenue, network co- founder Darren Lachtman says. The other 25% comes from spin offs such as a “Chicken Girls” book series with Simon & Schuster.
The revenue goal for 2020 is $15 million, down from $20 million because of the coronavirus pandemic, says Rob Fishman, Brat’s other co-founder. One shoot has been halted, but the company is proceeding on schedule otherwise and producing content remotely. While this number is far lower than what traditional TV networks bring in, it’s an “ambitious” goal for a startup digital network, Mr. Fishman says. “Advertisers pay way higher rates on television than they pay for what we do on YouTube. It’s a pity, because YouTube is where the audience is.”
Unlike channels that focus on video blogs or interviews, most of Brat TV’s shows are scripted by a traditional writers’ room and produced at the company’s 10,000-square-foot Hollywood studio. Besides “Chicken Girls,” Brat has about a dozen more shows. The bulk take place in the suburban fictional universe that includes the nearby towns of Attaway, Millwood and Crown Lake and follow the adventures and misadventures of their coming-of-age stars, as well as real- life current events.
Brat TV casts social media stars like Ms. LeBlanc with established followings. In February, Brat announced that TikTok star Dixie D’Amelio will front a new series called “Attaway General,” about teen volunteers at a hospital. It will premiere May 13 as scheduled. The network’s stars are cut in on brand deals—a practice that stretches back to the early days of television. Extra Gum, one of Brat TV’s regular sponsors, featured Ms. LeBlanc in a 60-second ad spot recently.
TikTok stars Gabby Morrison, left, and Dixie D’Amelio play teen hospital volunteers in the forthcoming Brat TV show ‘Attaway General.’
PHOTO: BRAT TV
Brat TV, which is free to watch, has been able to nurture a cult following because it meets Generation Z on its own turf—YouTube—and participates in the platform’s vibrant fandom culture, says Nikhil Srinivasan, co-founder of Zebra IQ, a Gen Z research firm. Brat shows are made to be watched on a phone, so the audience can “seamlessly flow across different social media channels,” Mr. Srinivasan says, adding that the actors make themselves available on social media.
“Chicken Girls” co-stars include YouTuber Hayden Summerall, who has his own combined social media following of six million. When the show launched, Ms. LeBlanc and Mr. Summerall were dating, and the series writers used that relationship, known to fans as “Hannie,” by romantically involving their characters as well. The early episodes included “Annie & Hayden” in the titles. The couple has since split up, but in Season 6 they are back on screen together, prompting fans to post that seeing “Hannie” again was the highlight.