The fact that YouTube star Grace Helbig has officially crossed over into traditional media by way of a comedy talk show that will begin airing on E! this April is yet more validation that YouTube is grooming our future stars and has transformed into a legitimate media machine. (As we reported last fall.) And it’s more validation that all those YouTube views actually mean something. Helbig’s YouTube channel, It’s Grace, where the fresh-faced millennial riffs on the banalities and conundrums of being a fresh-faced millennial, has over 2 million subscribers.
But that doesn’t mean that the series order of The Grace Helbig Project isn’t still a big bet for a mainstream cable network. Helbig, after all, while charming and funny, is charming and funny in a decidedly alternative, quirky, and ungroomed way. She is the master of the awkward pause, the blank stare that may or may not be a performance, the adorable fumbling for words. Even she cops to this–in the press release that was sent out to announce the show, she thanks E! for giving “an Internet-obsessed introvert a talk show.”
Granted, funny, alt girls are arguably having a moment, from Lena Dunham to Jenny Slate to the Broad City lasses. But all of those ladies perform on edgy, niche platforms, where their shows are not exactly ratings blockbusters. (Whatever Girls may say about feminism, hipsterdom, and the dubious state of Generation Y, most Americans would prefer Modern Family, thank you very much.) In other words, they are not performing on E!, where ratings, not a New York Times editorial and the love of critics, can help keep a show around.
Presumably, the network will attempt to polish Helbig up in a way that broadens her appeal yet doesn’t alienate her devoted fans. The task is not impossible–think Zoe Deschanel on The New Girl. (One imagines the word “adorkable” scrawled in all-caps on some whiteboard over at E! during a programming meeting.) And if they succeed, they will solve one of the major question marks surrounding YouTube right now: How do you translate all of that popularity to other forms of (more lucrative) entertainment? Michelle Phan and Bethany Mota have done it, but their roles as beauty and fashion spokeswomen don’t require much more than pretty faces and chirpy dispositions. To date, the one success story when it comes to a YouTube star migrating over to mainstream movies and TV is Fred the Annoying the Orange, and that example dates back to 2010.
But there are two big differences in 2015 that may help Helbig buck the trend. One is the power of social media as a marketing tool and entertainment enhancer. Unsurprisingly, in its press release E! called Helbig’s show a “call to action” for its Internet-savvy viewers, promising an interactive experience over Twitter, Vine, and Instagram. The Grace Helbig Show will not just be a show, it will be a “rich multiplatform experience,” according to Jeff Olde, executive vice president, original programming & development at E! Entertainment.
Secondly, by now, YouTube stars aren’t just vloggers staring into cameras in their parents’ basements–they are veritable brands. And Helbig is one of YouTube’s biggest. She’s starred in a movie, written a book, and is co-host of the Conde Nast travel series HeyUSA–her new gig is just another notch in her ever-expanding belt. Last summer, she told Fast Company that her major ambition was to “cross platform.”
“I’ve always cited Chris Hardwick as an inspiration for my career trajectory, because he created a brand, Nerdist, that appeals to a very specific audience,” she said then. “He creates a variety of content across platforms that he’s either in front of the camera for or he’s not, but it’s touched by him in some way. You feel like he’s recommended it personally. It still fits the brand.
Aha, that “B” word–and here it comes again.
“And that’s what I’m trying to build,” Helbig said. “This umbrella of a brand that appeals to the people that like web videos.”