How to make a new kind of hit TV show for the YouTube generation — from someone who did it

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[email protected]’ star Lia Marie Johnson [email protected]

There’s something that adult observers — from analysts to regular joes — just don’t get about the way teens watch video, according to “[email protected]” writer-director Hannah Macpherson.

“They are watching hours of shows on their phones,” Macpherson told Business Insider.

Older people assume teens are only watching things like YouTube videos, or short viral clips on Facebook, on their phones. But they are actually binge-watching whole Netflix shows on the small screen.

It’s a totally new way of watching premium TV, and the producers of the future have to be ready for it.

Macpherson came into contact with this behaviour in a huge way when she sold “[email protected]” to Verizon’s go90 streaming service, which is primarily a phone app. While go90 as a whole has struggled to find its place in the premium video landscape, “[email protected]” has been one of its few runaway hits, with episodes getting thousands of comments from viewers on the app, and its first episode sitting at over 1.2 million views on YouTube. (Like Netflix, Verizon won’t even tell Macpherson the exact in-app viewer numbers.)

If you watch “[email protected],” it’s easy to see why it has teens hooked. It’s an addictive murder-mystery thriller, set in high school, and the 11- to 15-minute episodes live very naturally on your phone. Each episode has a cliff-hanger scary ending that makes you want to jump straight to the next one. Even as someone way outside the show’s intended demographic, I can recognise its quality.

But while it might sound like “[email protected]” is a poster child for a new generation of bite-sized TV shows, Macpherson said that Season Two will actually have longer episodes, with 12 “half-hours” that clock in at 22-23 minutes each (a standard length for a TV show with commercial breaks).

The reason: since go90 releases “[email protected]” weekly, it was a bit excruciating for people to only have a dozen minutes to hold onto. Turns out that old-fashioned TV had a pretty good length for weekly shows.

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YouTube star JC Caylen (middle) was a big draw for the audience YouTube

TV for the YouTube generation

So some things haven’t changed for a show where most people are watching it on their phones instead of their TVs. And Macpherson said there were even some traditional networks interested in buying “[email protected]” before go90 put up the winning bid.

But even though “[email protected]” is moving to longer, more TV-like episodes for Season Two, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still huge differences in making a show for a generation raised on YouTube, according to Macpherson.

A big part of understanding that came from Macpherson’s partnership with AwesomenessTV, the $US650 million YouTube-centric juggernaut, which has made a name for itself by understanding what teens love.

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Hannah Macpherson Getty/Frazer Harrison

When Macpherson first brought “[email protected]” to AwesomenessTV, it was a one-hour pilot. There were more characters, especially adult characters, and subplots like a teacher trying out online dating.

“Awesomeness was so confident in the demo,” Macpherson said. They told her, “Let’s lose the older characters.” Macpherson cut down teh show, and focused more on the relationships between the high-school protagonists.

The second piece where “[email protected]” differed from traditional TV was in casting a mix of traditional actors and social-media “influencers.”

“I was a little resistant to auditioning YouTubers,” Macpherson said, but some of them ended up being great, and were cast in “[email protected]

This wasn’t a suggestion by AwesomenessTV, but more of a mandate.

According to Macpherson, AwesomenessTV has “almost an algorithm” for determining how many YouTube stars versus traditional actors to put in a project. “It is literally a percentage,” Macpherson said. And she understands why. “They are powerful,” she said, referring to the YouTube stars. “People watch ‘[email protected]’ because of of JC Caylen.” He has 2.7 million subscribers on YouTube.

When it came to shooting the show, Macpherson said she needed it to look good in a theatre or on a cell phone, and have everything be legible on the small screen. There were some trade-offs. “You cannot have that massive wide,” she said.

But while there were restrictions — like a small budget necessitating a “two takes max” mantra — there was also a degree of freedom for Macpherson. “I write them all and direct them,” she explained. “There’s a degree of trust you would not get anywhere else. Even at Amazon or Netflix there’s still a different director for every episode.”

Macpherson delivered on that freedom, and will soon be making her first big studio movie as well, where there will be a lot more cooks in the kitchen. But first, Macpherson will deliver the second season of “[email protected],” which she finished a 25-day shoot in the New Mexico desert for.

And anyone trying to understand how to make a hit TV show for the YouTube generation should definitely tune in.

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