Commentary

Can Grace Helbig Figure Out TV?

Grace Helbig went to a Golden Globes party a little while ago and on the red carpet, a TV interviewer asked her what time in history she’d most like to experience. Hardly without missing a beat, Helbig answered, “I’d like to go back to the 90s. It feels so long ago. I’d like to really take it in, as an adult now. . . All the poor choices that led us to all the things we are doing today.”

What a great answer, given that what Helbig is doing today probably confounds as many millions as it entertains, and didn’t even exist until well into the 21st Century.

She’s one of YouTube’s stars, a vlogger whose “It’s Grace” has two million subscribers and 150 million views, who is otherwise found all over YouTube -- and who will get her own weekly show on cable’s E! network beginning in April.

She’s crossing over, as very few YouTubers have. To be sure, YouTube performers can be bitter over the snubs they endure from established media. They very well remember an insulting “Good Morning America” interview with Jenna Marbles in which GMA’s Cecilia Vega at one point asked, “Do you think you deserve to have as many fans as you do?”

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To hear that kind of smack from…”Good Morning America”? Outrageous.

Although Helbig is aware that her show is still a kind of test tube for bringing online sensibility to television, she’s taking it in stride. “I feel very lucky to be on the forefront of this, to figure out the formula for this... if there is a formula,” she says.

To many, Helbig is absolutely unknown, yet to millions of others, she’s huge. She has those vlogs. She has a podcast,”Not Too Deep”  and her self-help book, Grace’s Guide: The Art of Pretending to Be A Grown Up is on The New York Times’ Top Ten List (for relationship books). She tours the “No Filter Show” with her good friends and YouTubers Hannah Hart and Mamrie Hart and when all three of them are announce on stage, the crowd screams with the kind of energy-charged excitement rock stars get. Not only are YouTube vloggers stars, they’re relatable. You can talk to them. They’re that close.

With tight camera shots -- because, like many YouTube videos, Helbig’s are often shot in her home or hotel rooms while she’s traveling -- it’s as if you can reach out and touch. Viewers practically see the edits as they occur; errors are part of the charm. It’s all very handheld and out front, even the fact that her ditziness is mostly an act that she pulls in and out of. How do you take that to TV?

“I think E! understands the voice,” she says. “I don’t think I could do an incredibly heavily scripted show. I don’t think that would be authentic to me. The Internet really rewards authenticity and integrity and the intimate relationship with an audience. That’s what I want to preserve with the television show. It’s really hard to feel intimate with a television show. I am going to try my best.  

“But I want it to feel like a television show at the end of the day," she continues. "That’s something we’re trying to figure out. I joke that  I want it to feel like my vlog with a budget. I want it to maintain that awkward feel. Familiar, but bigger than what I’m doing.”

For example, it’s very important to her that she is live-tweeting when her show airs, so she can have a back-and-forth relationship with viewers as they watch. That shows her acumen,  figuring how to fuse the television anonymity to YouTube touchy-feeliness. That Twitter conversation is akin to the comments section of her YouTube videos.

However seat-of-the-pants YouTube videos might appear, performers like Helbig know their business. She seems to be one half performer, one half executive producer.

Talking about dealing with E!, which she says has been great so far, she says, “I have been my own boss for so long, I found my voice, and I know exactly who my audience is--YouTube analytics really can pinpoint it to an exact age, location, gender etcetera. I  really know who’s watching on the other end. E! really respects that.”  

Helbig, raised in New Jersey, was working at odd jobs and working with an improv comedy troupe in New York. She fell into YouTube videos by chance -- a diversion that suddenly turned into a career. Like a lot of YouTube successes, she is an entrepreneur who realizes the multimedia dimensions she can mine. Her inspiration, she often says, is comedian/Nerdist Chris Hardwick, who is all over the entertainment landscape, the performer-as-brand.

The TV show, Helbig says, allows her to find a new audience, and for her current fans, “it’s watching me on another square in the house.”

It could be the start of something big. “I feel like a few years ago we called ourselves pioneers in the YouTube space,” she says. “We were trying to find out what it was, and we found out there were actual viable careers opportunities out there. And now that’s been established, I think this year is going to be a really important year for traditional media and new media. Are they going to fight to the death or are they going to sleep together?”

No one really knows for sure. But she says, in a suddenly flowery voice: “It’s my hope they have a lovely equal partnership relationship. I’m trying to figure that out.”


pj@mediapost.com
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