Former MTV Chief Builds Video Network for the Snapchat Generation

Astronauts Wanted to Launch Site, Flagship Show in June

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Judy McGrath spent last decade developing shows for millennials like "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom." Now she wants to do the same for the Snapchat generation.

This June the former MTV Networks CEO's new company will debut a show and website aimed at the highly sought-after younger millennial and teen female audience.

"I'm an admirer of Vice and AwesomenessTV and believe there's room for another brand," said Ms. McGrath, referencing two video-heavy digital media companies that appeal to Millennial-aged and younger consumers.

Her brand is Astronauts Wanted, a joint venture with Sony Music focused on online video that Ms. McGrath announced last July. "We're purposefully positioning Astronauts Wanted as a brand, not a production company or a branded content agency, though those are part of it," she said.

Brand strategy
Having a brand has become important for companies in online video, which is dominated by single personalities like PewDiePie. But content companies increasingly want to move audiences off YouTube to properties they own, and need a brand to do that. The same goes for Astronauts Wanted, which plans to debut a full-fledged site for its videos this summer.

"Right now we have the architecture. We have been working with a firm on building it and are entering into phase two or three. We'll have a slate to roll out by, let's say, June and will have the owned-and-operated in pretty good shape for that launch," Ms. McGrath said.

Over the last nine months, the New York-based company has staffed up seven people, including two execs well-versed in youth media culture, as it looks to program for today's cool kids.

"We have a team of young college students and one of the series is from a high school student. They're on the payroll and we talk to them formally every Friday. We talk to them constantly. We want them to be like scouts for us on talent and what's going on," Ms. McGrath said.

Finding Gen Z
Ms. McGrath's top scout is her former senior VP-strategic insights and research at MTV, Nick Shore, who has spent years studying up on youth culture.

"We're seeing the tail end of the millennials and the ascendancy now of Gen Z [loosely categorized as those under 17 years old]," said Mr. Shore, now chief creative strategist at Astronauts Wanted.

When he joined Astronauts last July, Mr. Shore's first job was to figure out what audience the company should be targeting and how. He described the mid-to-late female teen audience as "the sweet spot" for the social hyperactivity. But to program to them successfully means breaking down the fourth wall to create a dialogue between a show and its audience. It also means looking to them for talent as opposed to forcing stars upon them."It speaks a lot to the bottom-up nature of Gen Z. They are their own heroes; they're kids on Vine and YouTube and Instagram," he said.

Mr. Shore also found that Vine may carry more sway than YouTube. "Vine is edgier than YouTube, though that's hard to say because there's so much content on YouTube," Mr. Shore said, describing Gen Z as "a bit edgier" than millennials.

'Summer Break'
All of Mr. Shore's insights are represented in what Ms. McGrath described as the company's flagship show, "Summer Break," which Astronauts grabbed from The Chernin Group along with its producer.

Something of a younger sibling to MTV's former reality series "Laguna Beach," the show aired its first season last summer about a group of Southern California high school graduates during the months before leaving for college. But unlike its predecessor -- or any show, really -- "Summer Break" didn't air on any specific service. Termed a "transmedia" production, the show streamed episodes on YouTube but also regularly posted content between episodes on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram.

'Summer Break' page on Tumblr
'Summer Break' page on Tumblr

Aimed at Astronauts' Millennial-and-teen-girl audience, the second season to premiere in June will add Vine and Snapchat to the distribution mix. And the company has brought in Billy Parks who produced the inaugural season as executive VP-digital production and programming at The Chernin Group and is now the chief content officer at Astronauts.

"We plan to make several shows over the next 12 months," Mr. Parks said. As with "Summer Break," those shows will pop up on the company's site, YouTube, Vine, Twitter and other services. Ms. McGrath declined to share show specifics because they're still in development, but mentioned fashion and music as two categories of interest.

"Summer Break" serves as not only as a template for content and distribution but also revenue. The series is co-produced with AT&T, which carries a presenting sponsor branding in episodes as well as product placement.

Astronauts plans to fund "a lot of the content ourselves," Ms. McGrath said, but is open to co-funding with marketers. That sounds expensive but potentially worthwhile if a brand can piggyback any traction Astronauts' gets with Millennials' and their younger cohort.

However Astronauts' content output won't always be so formal as programmed series. For example, last weekend Astronauts worked out a deal for Vine star Princess Lauren -- who counts 2.5 million followers on Twitter's video-sharing service -- to take over the company's Instagram account and post videos from the Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Like this one:

That's not so much a show as it is content people in this demo want to check out. "We want Astronauts to feel like a 'for us, by us' brand. We want it to feel like it's a conversation," Mr. Parks said.

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