The episode distilled for Robbins a fundamental change in the viewing habits of young audiences. Although kids under age 18 still watch a lot of television — more than 100 hours a month, according to Nielsen estimates — they're watching fewer shows live and devoting more time to videos online. In fact, there has been a 61% spike in the time spent viewing Internet video in just the last two years, according to the most recent research.
"Brian has had tremendous success over several decades producing high-quality original programming targeting teens and tweens, but there is a lot of data suggesting that these viewers are watching less and less traditional television," said Brent Weinstein, head of Digital Media at Robbins' agency, United Talent Agency. "So if you were going to create a network from scratch that was targeting that audience ... would you create a linear broadcast or cable channel, or would you create a digital network? We felt strongly that it was the latter."
Robbins' Internet conversion began in 2009 after a meeting with Lucas Cruikshank, the Nebraska teen who created one of the most popular characters on YouTube, the squeaky-voiced, hyperkinetic Fred Figglehorn. At the time, Robbins wasn't thinking about mining the Web for creative talent — he was too busy making movies and producing five television shows. That night, though, he came home to find a gathering of his sons' friends — and turned the hangout session into an impromptu focus group.
"I was like, 'Do you guys know who Fred is?' And they all start doing the Fred voice,'" said the trim, energetic Robbins, 48. "And for some reason I said, 'Would you guys want to see a Fred movie?' and without any hesitation, one of them said, 'Tonight?' I was like, 'Wow. OK.' So I went back to the office and [said], 'We're going to make a movie out of Fred.'"
Instead of pitching the concept to Paramount Pictures, Robbins took the unusual step of bankrolling the movie — together with Cruikshank's management firm, the Collective. He hired "Family Guy" executive producer and writer David Goodman to develop a script, and he held a marathon, five-day-long brainstorming session to develop the outline of the story. Keeping to an accelerated production schedule, befitting the movie's indie-sized $1-million budget, Robbins and his team started preparing for filming before the first draft had been delivered.
Shooting was completed five months after Robbins' initial meeting with Cruikshank.
The impulse to work quickly to capitalize on Fred's surging online popularity was rewarded. "Fred: The Movie" attracted 7.6 million viewers when it premiered on Nickelodeon, the highest-rated basic cable movie of 2010 among viewers ages 2 to 11. The ratings success spawned a television movie sequel — with a third movie, "Fred Goes to Summer Camp," which airs this summer — and a regular TV series, which joined the network's Monday night lineup in January. Robbins has been involved in all these productions.
"After the success of Fred, I was sitting around going, 'This is really amazing. This kid from Nebraska, without any money, without any Hollywood ability, built this on his own. Then, we came along and turned it onto this thing,'" Robbins said. "So why don't we reverse-engineer it? Why don't we start putting sketch comedy up on YouTube?"
Robbins pitched YouTube's Kyncl on the concept for Awesomeness TV in January 2011.
Short and funny
Robbins, a former child actor, has devoted his career to projects with a youthful sensibility, from the CW and WB dramas "One Tree Hill" and "Smallville," to the long-running Nickelodeon sketch comedy show "All That." His film credits are dominated by such comedies as "Wild Hogs," "Big Fat Liar," a trio of Eddie Murphy movies and a picture due out next year, "The To Do List," starring "Saturday Night Live's" Andy Samberg.
Those influences and an awareness of what kids find entertaining are reflected in Awesomeness TV's first shows. The network's eclectic offerings — dramas, a "Man vs. Food" reality TV-style eating contest and a sitcom set in high school bathrooms, among others — seek to grab as diverse a young audience as possible. The common denominator is Robbins' belief that young viewers like his sons, who have been weaned on short-form Web videos, crave brevity in their entertainment.
A film director and producer, he struggles to coax the boys to go with him to the movie theater, underscoring what he sees as a permanent change in audience tastes. "The short attention span is what I'm talking about.... That's why I'm really excited about this space," Robbins said. "I like making stuff that's four and six minutes long. Who says something needs to be 22 minutes long or 48 minutes long? That's why YouTube really works for short-attention-span theater."