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YouTube moves closer to becoming a Netflix for millennials

Published:Monday | February 15, 2016 | 12:00 AM

The world's biggest online video platform officially cracked into the paid original content business last week when it premiered the first four titles produced for its new subscription service, YouTube Red.

Included in the February 10 launch: Dance Camp, a musical teen drama produced by digital network AwesomenessTV; Scare PewDiePie, a series that pairs YouTube sensation Felix Kjellberg with the creator of The Walking Dead and Maker Studios; A Trip to Unicorn Island, a documentary by another wildly popular YouTube star, Lilly Singh, and digital-first studio Astronauts Wanted; and Lazer Team, a sci-fi comedy made by production company Rooster Teeth and Fullscreen Films.

The launch marked an important turning point for YouTube, which is largely responsible for kick-starting the online video revolution but hasn't generated the same buzz as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Hulu in recent years.

Those streaming sites have enjoyed massive success with popular series such as House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Transparent.

YouTube hopes to do the same, but with cheaper productions and a decidedly younger audience that's grown up watching YouTube and social media stars in lieu of traditional TV.

"Initially, there's going to be a strong focus on the fan base," said Susanne Daniels, YouTube's global head of original content and a former executive at MTV and Lifetime.

There are growing signs that YouTube's homegrown artists have permanently broken into the mainstream. Kjellberg made a recent appearance as a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Singh was a recent guest on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And Tyler Oakley, another massive YouTube "influencer", had a book land on The New York Times bestseller list and appears on CBS' The Amazing Race.

"Each influencer has their unique voice," said Matt Kaplan, head of AwesomenessTV's film division. "There's a reason why (millions) of people are watching them, and it's not just because it's free."

YouTube aims to release between 15 and 20 new titles on Red this year. That, combined with an ad-free experience, access to streaming music and offline video viewing, is how the company is promoting its $9.99 monthly service, which was launched in October 2015.