In mission to compete with TV, YouTube wants to make a star out of you

TORONTO – Google wants you to be the next Justin Bieber.

Or Harley Morenstein. Or Peter Chao. Or Mike Tompkins.

The Internet giant is on a mission to make YouTube a real rival to television and get web viewers in the habit of watching not just the latest viral video, but a steady stream of content.

The company wants to hook users for more than a few minutes and condition viewers to start regularly spending big chunks of time — maybe a solid half hour here, an hour or more on the couch there — glued to YouTube.

But to do that, it needs a lot of good, fresh content. So YouTube is urging content creators — established and rookies — to create their own channels and churn out hours of content that users will subscribe to, even if each clip only generates modest views.

It’s no longer just about hit counts. More than ever, YouTube is interested in landing return viewers who stick around awhile.

“People are coming back consistently to watch … on a more frequent and more regular basis as opposed to simply being sent a one-off video and that’s the destination we’re driving towards,” said Dave Brown, who leads YouTube Canada’s partnership program.

According to comScore stats from earlier this year, there are 15.8 million unique Canadian visitors to YouTube each month, who collectively watch 310 million hours of video, or an average of about 19.6 hours per user per month.

In the fall of 2011, Google announced it would spend $100 million to push its new channel concept by recruiting celebs like Ashton Kutcher and Amy Poehler and brands including The Onion, WWE and the Wall Street Journal to create new original content for YouTube.

In recent months, Google committed another $200 million to building out its channel strategy on the strength of its successes so far. A cartoon channel called MondoMedia has over 1.4 million subscribers and 1.6 billion video views. A Red Bull-branded extreme sports channel has over a million subscribers and over 500 million views.

On a smaller scale, YouTube is also taking a page from the reality TV playbook and has launched a string of its own “next big thing” contests encouraging Internet users to show off their skills on YouTube. The prize? A chance at fame and an audience of millions around the world.

And Canadians have taken notice.

“What we’re finding with Canadian partners is that they’re really taking advantage of the opportunity to export their content and reach a much larger market than what they otherwise might have grown up with,” said Brown.

“Canadians punch way above their weight class, irrespective of any kind of handicapping for per capita, they still do really, really well and are a very strategic country to YouTube and are a large part of YouTube’s success.”

Matt Dennison and Jason Lucas won the YouTube Next Comic for their channel, which has some 65,000 subscribers and some 17 million views. One video in particular, a takeoff on the popular video game “Diablo 3,” has amassed more than nine million views.

Bodybuilder Lee Hayward was chosen as one of YouTube’s Next Trainer winners and has more than 50,000 subscribers and 22 million views to his credit.

And most recently, Kevin Cheung and partners Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown were winners of the Next EDU Gurus contest that was seeking out the best educational content creators.

None can realistically expect to become the next Bieber, but perhaps — and it’s still a long shot — they can aspire to Morenstein’s success.

He’s not a household name but in the YouTube world, he’s a star.

The Montreal-native is the face of Epic Meal Time, the over-the-top gluttonous cooking series that has more than 2.9 million subscribers — which places it just outside the Top 10 list of the most popular channels on YouTube — and more than 485 million views for its videos.

Epic Meal Time was pretty much an overnight sensation, with the very first clip — the creation of a pizza adorned with fast food toppings including a McDonald’s Big Mac, Kentucky Fried Chicken popcorn chicken and a Wendy’s Baconator — going viral in October 2010.

In a few short months, after watching each new video rack up millions of hits, Morenstein and his friends that create Epic Meal Time were ready to take the next big step and land a TV deal.

They flew to Los Angeles to meet with networks and landed a guest spot on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” where they fed “The Office” star Rainn Wilson. They shot a pilot episode for what they hoped would be a TV hit and Morenstein said they received interest from the likes of Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, G4 and Spike TV.

But almost two years later, their dreams of taking their act to TV has been shelved.

“I don’t know if we want to repitch it, or want to do TV. We kind of want to live on the Internet still,” says Morenstein in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he’s now based.

“TV was the big thing until we got into the nitty gritty of it. You really do the math and it doesn’t make sense. Our Internet show gets more views than ‘Man v. Food’ and ‘Ace of Cakes’ combined each week, so to give that up for television? The allure of television is very interesting but ultimately the businessman inside of me knows better.”

Morenstein says the team has a virtually endless supply of Epic Meal Time episode ideas but recognizes the concept might get stale for some viewers, so they’re branching out.

He concedes he’s watched his numbers fall steeply, although they’re still at enviable levels.

“Our viewership at one point was 16 million in a week and now we hit about five million views in a week, so to an extent it has somewhat declined or plateaued. But you know, just because it’s at a third of the viewership that it was it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s the No. 1 online cooking show in the world.”

The new concept coming soon, called Epic Chef, plays into YouTube’s ambitions to hang onto viewers longer. The new show is an extended version of Epic Meal Time but with a reality TV format: two chefs compete to out do each other in creating crazy meat and liquor-based concoctions.

“It’s our own competitive-based reality show, that’s not bound by the rules of traditional media, we can kind of get as gritty as we want,” Morenstein says.

“It captures a lot of what Epic Meal Time is, that semi-amateur, we don’t care attitude … which gives it a unique flavour.”

Fellow Canadian YouTube star Tompkins is also trying to parlay his early success into something bigger. And he too is eschewing the traditional route to fame and sticking with the online world.

Tompkins has attracted more than 645,000 subscribers and logged about 113 million video views for his unique a cappela covers of pop songs. In his take on Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” the screen is divided into multiple shots of Tompkins, who’s seen singing, of course, and also mimicking each of the instruments in the song only using his voice. For the verses, he somehow spits out sounds that accurately replicate two guitar parts, drums, bass, and assorted beeps. During the chorus, there are 13 shots of Tompkins belting out various sounds to recreate the song.

He’s also had viral covers of “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz, “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, “Only a Girl” by Rihanna and “We Are Young” by fun.

The London, Ont., native, who started out in the recording studio producing music, including for rapper Shad, said there’d likely be no place for his offbeat covers in the traditional music industry, but YouTube gave him an outlet for his unusual talent.

He’s moved to Los Angeles to build his YouTube career and is now working on a project involving his own original music. Not surprisingly, he’s not looking for a record deal and is sticking with YouTube.

“There’s something amazing about the fact that I get to do what I do and people watch me and I’m able to do it and make a living off of it,” says Tompkins.

“I’m still kind of in shock that I’m able to do this and I’m having so much fun.”