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Old Trick, New Medium: Hire Stars, See If Audiences Tune In

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HBO has never been known as a first mover when it comes to the web. The premium cable network was an iTunes holdout until earlier this year and still doesn’t stream its shows online. Though to be fair, HBO’s business model is subscription-based, so streaming its shows would be somewhat foolish.

Meanwhile, HBO has been a partner on YouTube since 2006. And it is perhaps that partnership that drove the programmer to finally hatch a plan for an original web series, one that’s fronted by the crème de la crème of YouTube stars.

With the 10-episode show Hooking Up, which will launch Oct. 1 on HookingupShow.com, YouTube, Metacafe and Break.com, HBO is planting a big flag in the web series world. Unlike the network’s Runaway Box, a quiet online hub for comedy videos, HBO is actually talking about this new series. “This is the first big project for HBOLabs,” the experimental arm of the network that tests content for various HBO platforms and also runs Runaway Box, General Manager Fran Shea said.

To be sure, HBO is making clear that Hooking Up is not in the prime-time pipeline. But it could very well make the leap to the TV set in other ways, such as via HBO on-demand. “Everyone is looking at this to see what works,” Shea said.

But the real purpose of Hooking Up is to test whether a certain tactic of traditional TV works on the web — that of casting of bona fide stars with built-in audiences. TV networks and film studios have long done this, as they have learned that fans of high-profile celebrities will pay the price of admission to any new project with which their beloved stars are involved.

That’s HBO’s approach to Hooking Up, too. The show features YouTube stars Jessica Rose, Kevin Wu, Philip DeFranco, Michael Buckley, Kevin Nalty and others, all of whom have web views in the multimillions.

“It’s an old television trick and every programmer looks at this and says, ‘I know stars will bring audiences in.’ But will they keep them? I don’t know,” Shea said.

It may be an old trick, but it’s not a guarantee. After all, big names don’t always draw. Witness Will Ferrell’s recent box-office dud Step Brothers. Then there are movies like 2007’s Lions for Lambs with mega stars Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, which also flopped.

HBO’s strategy is risky in other ways. Philip DeFranco is indeed a big draw on YouTube. But he plays himself. Viewers tune in for his take on the news. Will those same viewers want to see him playing a character, some college student, in Hooking Up?

It’s a gamble, and not one I’m willing to wager on one way or the other just yet.

Daisy Whitney is a contributing writer with TelevisionWeek and the host of the New Media Minute, a weekly webcast on the business of online video.

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