Rhett & Link's 'Buddy System' goes old school to try new tricks

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by Joan E. Solsman February 11, 2017 5:00 AM PST @joan_e

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For their most ambitious online video yet, YouTubers Rhett and Link went back to their roots.

The pair, Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, rose to prominence with their daily YouTube variety show "Good Mythical Morning," in which they challenge each other to eat strange foods and riff on internet oddities. But when Google's YouTube began bankrolling its stars to make shows and movies for its subscription service, McLaughlin and Neal spied the chance to do more of the sketches, music videos and local commercials they originally loved.

The result was "Buddy System," a scripted series inventing a "fictionalized world...behind 'Good Mythical Morning' that brings in all this stuff that we really want to do," McLaughlin said.

"Buddy System" is one of many premium shows found on YouTube Red, Google's experiment to see whether superfans are willing to pay upfront for longer, sleeker videos by the YouTubers they've grown accustomed to watching free for years. It also puts YouTube stars at the helm of pricey, long-form movies and shows on a site most folks still associate with cat videos.

But employing a Netflix-like subscription model isn't without its risks. McLaughlin said asking fans to pay for the content they're used to getting for free, "without a doubt, that's going to be a challenge."

"It is taking the time for people to get that," he said.

YouTube hasn't disclosed membership numbers for Red, nor would Rhett and Link share stats about how many people have watched the series. But the first episode, which is free without a subscription, has been viewed 7.3 million times since it launched in October.

To put into context, that's as if nearly two-thirds of their 11.8 million "Good Mythical Morning" subscribers watched the first show. Though YouTube is more generous counting viewers than traditional TV ratings, that's about the same audience that tuned into the latest episode of "The Bachelor" the day it aired.

The series follows the pair as they try to reclaim their channel from a high-school girlfriend who usurped it to upload infomercials.

It's not the first time the pair have tried their hands at a longer-form series. In 2011, McLaughlin and Neal made a series for cable network IFC, "Commercial Kings," which was cancelled after one season.

But "Buddy System" was nevertheless in a different class.

Prior to the Red show, "the longest shoot...we had invested in was three days, maybe three and half days for an ambitious music video," said Neal. "It was nowhere near the two months" during which their team shot "Buddy System."

McLaughlin and Neal, who have been friends since first grade and have been making online videos before YouTube even launched 12 years ago, have seen online video change from their own grainy music spoofs to productions with the same quality and funding as "real TV."

"Back in the 'old days,' five years ago, most people who were making digital content were trying to find a way to move over to traditional TV," McLaughlin said. But today, they don't see the same aspiration among online stars to migrate to regular TV.

"Every single (television) show has a digital strategy," he said. "But it doesn't go the other way."

They've seen the starkest examples of the changing perception of "real TV" in their kids. "My youngest son, who's six, doesn't even know there's a Disney Channel," Neal said. "He watches people play Pokemon Go on YouTube."

But kids' appetite for YouTube has helped "Good Mythical Morning" find another demographic to add to its audience -- their parents.

"For a number of kids, our show is 'their' show...but our show is also for us. We make it for ourselves to enjoy, not for kids to enjoy," said Neal. When parents look over their kid's shoulder to see what kind of weird online clip is playing now, they get drawn in, he said.

"We are the gateway drug to 'internetainment,'" Neal said. "For parents."

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