Screen shot of an episode of "Annoying Orange" on YouTube. (YouTube )
It's logged more than 1 billion views on YouTube and is a genuine Internet sensation, even though all the characters are bickering, crudely animated fruits. But will TV audiences find "Annoying Orange" as appealing?
Cartoon Network is about to find out Monday with its latest series, adapted from the enormously popular three-minute animated Web clips about a talking citrus with a high-pitched voice and a grating penchant for laughing at his own jokes.
Annoyed critics have trashed "Orange" for humor that might not pass muster on a grade-school playground: Imagine"South Park"set in a kitchen, minus the ripped-from-the-headlines outrageousness.
Creator Dane Boedigheimer — a native North Dakotan whose official bio describes him as a "goofball extraordinaire" — agrees it's all silly, but says that's not the only point.
"Everybody knows someone like this character," he said in an interview this week.
But there's a lot more at stake than just one relatable fruit. With Internet video viewership soaring — and Americans increasingly bypassing TV for their tablets, smartphones and laptops — "Annoying Orange" offers the latest test of whether the Internet can help reenergize television, a conventional media format often criticized for creative infertility and too many lookalike programs.
"We've been looking at Internet properties for quite a long time," said Rob Sorcher, chief content officer at Cartoon Network, explaining the decision to pick "Annoying Orange." "We're an obvious fit for what this show is."
Television networks have had some success transferring original Web content to the living-room flatscreen — and it seems that the goofier that content is, such as "Annoying Orange," the better. The antics of Fred Figglehorn — a manic, helium-voiced, deeply troubled 6-year-old portrayed by 18-year-old Lucas Cruikshank — jumped from YouTube to two hit movies for Nickelodeon, with a third on the way. "Adventure Time" — an animated satire of post-apocalyptic fantasies — was a Web hit first before Cartoon Network picked it up in 2010.
But not everything survives the jump. CBS was confident that a Twitter account based around bon mots from a grumpy septuagenarian could be spun into sitcom gold. Yet "$#*! My Dad Says" starring William Shatner didn't even last an entire season.
Some experts see the inherent slickness of TV as not always conducive to homegrown Web fare.
"The Web and TV are merging, but we aren't there yet," said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University. "Web 'subscribers' won't automatically follow Web series to television because some of the Web charm disappears once a traditional television channel grabs the content and, in a sense, mainstreams it."
But McCall added that Cartoon could probably squeeze some business from "Orange" because it fits well with its fairly narrow, young-male target audience.
Without a doubt, Internet video use is skyrocketing. According to comScore, an audience measurement company, Americans watched 37 billion online videos in April 2012, with the average viewer watching 21.8 hours that month — up 46% compared with the same period a year earlier. (An increasing share of the total consists of video ads, which now account for more than one-fifth of online video viewing.)
Online video can serve as a low-cost incubator for ideas that would probably never make it through the expensive and time-consuming development process of network TV, which tends to focus on established genres such as sitcoms or crime dramas.
"The Internet is still a great testing ground for anything, because it's so much cheaper" than the traditional TV development process, said Gregory Artzt, chief strategy officer at General Sentiment, a company that measures public opinion of entertainment content as well as other products.
The genesis of "Annoying Orange" was about as cheap as it gets. Boedigheimer was an obscure maker of short Web videos, many of which featured talking fruit being sliced and diced in what he dubs "kitchen carnage."
As he went to sleep one night in 2009, he hit upon the idea of the Annoying Orange character and began laughing.
"A week later, I put it online," he said. "In two or three weeks, it got over 1 million hits." Subsequent episodes grew in popularity.
The key, he says, is that Annoying Orange stayed alive, annoying people. "Most of my other characters, I killed off" in one episode.
As always, Boedigheimer kept things simple and ultra low-budget. He voiced the title character himself in a scratchy falsetto. The Web show was shot using real human mouths for the dialogue, a la the 1960s cartoon "Clutch Cargo." A Sony EX1 camcorder was used for that. Then Boedigheimer added the fruit shapes and backgrounds with two apps, Photoshop and After Effects.