Celebs Headline New YouTube Channels, but How Committed Are Their Stars?

Oprah Winfrey Blames OWN's Early Struggles on Her Divided Attention

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Shaq will appear in 'Ballerz' on YouTube's forthcoming Comedy Shaq Network.
Shaq will appear in 'Ballerz' on YouTube's forthcoming Comedy Shaq Network.

Among YouTube's coming 100 or so new professionally produced "channels" are a host of headline-grabbing celebrity names, including Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Shaquille O' Neal, Jay -Z and Rainn Wilson. But how much these channels actually get from their stars beyond name recognition is going to vary -- from some involvement to very little at all.

Mr. O' Neal will appear in 3 out of 15 original series on his Comedy Shaq Network, which will deliver about 350 episodes over 12 months starting next July, according to his business partner, Jeff Clanagan of Codeblack Entertainment. The three series featuring Mr. O' Neal are a five- to seven-minute weekly "Entourage"-style scripted series centered on him and three assistants, titled "Ballerz"; a monthly show where he curates his 10 favorite YouTube videos; and a weekly reality series he'll judge titled "Who's the Next All-Star?" where 50 comedians duel for top honors.

Ashton Kutcher's production company Katalyst is programming the Thrash Lab channel, but like a lot of Katalyst projects, its series might have the "Two and a Half Men" star as an executive producer without putting him on camera, according to Katalyst president Anthony Batt.

Thrash Lab will be a combination of scripted fare and reality-style videos with an element of live streaming as well, Mr. Batt said. "There's ample time for him to be involved," he said of Mr. Kutcher.

Mr. Wilson's SoulPancake channel, an offshoot of a site he already operates, will consist of "unscripted reality-style and documentary-style programming" when it debuts next July, says SoulPancake's co-director of content Shabnam Mogharabi. While Mr. Wilson will be one of the executive producers for all of the content, he's only set to appear on-screen in one interview series, where he'll speak to fellow celebrities and get "mystical and metaphysical with them," Ms. Mogharabi said. His level of involvement will depend on his schedule, she added.

And while Madonna is working with the dance video network DanceOn for its channel launch, the producers declined to describe what, exactly, she will be doing for the channel or her financial connection to it.

Launching a media property around a celebrity is an established strategy both online and offline, but there are perils when that celebrity isn't a great content creator or is spread too thin to sufficiently contribute.

Demand Media and AOL have launched celebrity sites around Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum, respectively, but the AOL site seems to be more regularly refreshed with Klum-centric content, like a photo swapped out daily that shows her various looks. Ms. Klum's byline appears frequently on her site, followed by "AOL Staff, Editor." Content on Ms. Banks' fashion and beauty site, TypeF, is almost entirely by other bylined writers.

TypeF has largely failed to pick up steam, debuting in March with 113,000 unique visitors and clocking in with 135,000 in September, according to ComScore. Ms. Klum's lifestyle portal had 845,000 unique visitors in September, the first month that ComScore data was available.

On TV, Oprah Winfrey's 24-hour OWN Network arrived with fanfare in January but saw prime-time ratings plummet after the first month -- in part, it seems, because Ms. Winfrey's attention was initially still focused on concluding her long-running "The Oprah Winfrey Show." She appears to be looking to rectify that this fall by hosting "Oprah's Lifeclass," reviewing favorite moments from her 25 years on the air, and she is also starring in a new prime time series, "Oprah's Next Chapter," starting in January.

OWN's audiences have rebounded somewhat in the last month, averaging 213,000 viewers in prime time from Sept. 26 through Oct. 30 after sinking to an all-time low of 178,000 the month prior, according to Nielsen. The uptick coincides with the launch of "Oprah's Lifeclass" and Rosie O' Donnell's talk show on OWN last month, though it's too early to say whether the infusion of celebrity will translate into sustained ratings gains.

YouTube's original-content play could falter if it becomes too much for celebrities who are over-committed elsewhere. But there are ways to deliver for fans even when a star isn't on the screen.

"I think that a celebrity's voice should shine through in all of the programming, whether they appear in it or not," said Brent Weinstein, head of digital media for United Talent Agency, which was involved in developing some of the new YouTube channels but none of the celebrity channels announced so far. "I imagine the celebrities will appear in the content from time to time because they know the audience will expect it."

"When you're asking fans to come to your page on a daily basis and you're not giving them something new and interesting, you're going to upset the core of your audience," Mr. Weinstein added.

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