Looking beyond cuddly-cat videos, the wildly popular site is positioning itself as the go-to site for high-quality content.

By Grady Smith
Updated March 01, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

When Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, a pair of 25-year-olds known as Smosh, posted a silly YouTube video of themselves lip-synching the Pokémon theme song in 2005, they weren’t trying to become Web phenoms. But that’s exactly what happened. The clip went viral, thanks to some incalculable combination of millennial nostalgia and absurdist Internet humor. Eight years later, Smosh run the most popular channel on YouTube, boasting more than 7.9 million subscribers. The guys also have a Spanish channel, a vlog channel, a cartoon channel, a newly launched gaming channel, and a website/social network (Smosh.com) that has exclusive video content and merchandise. They may have started as a one-off viral sensation, but their success — and the success of fellow YouTube pioneers — has helped reshape the site into a vast entertainment entity that produces so much more than Web-based novelty acts.

Smosh, like so many of YouTube’s other top content creators, landed an audience via professionally produced videos, a consistent release schedule, and help from a slew of ahead-of-the-curve thinkers and producers. ”[The site is no longer about] just viral videos, which is what was stereotypical of YouTube,” says Rafi Fine, one half of The Fine Bros., who release new editions of their popular React series every Sunday and Thursday. ”These [”programs”] are similar to television in the way that they’re executed and released.”

Of course, YouTube — which launched in 2005 and now ranks as the No. 3 website behind its owner, Google, and Facebook — will always play host to clips of adorable animals and goofy footage of people doing the ”Harlem Shake.” (In fact, the site is now such a key player in the music world, Billboard recently reconfigured its chart algorithm to take YouTube views into account. So that explains how ”Harlem Shake” got to be the No. 1 song in the country.) But increasingly, formatted programming is becoming the driving force of the site. And as YouTube’s latest redesign — which emphasizes subscriptions to various Web-based entertainment ”channels” — proves, that’s exactly how they want it. ”We know that when people subscribe, they’ll watch twice as much,” says Alex Carloss, YouTube’s head of entertainment partnerships. ”The rearchitecture of the site has resulted in subscriptions doubling in a very short space of time.”

As competition for viewers increases, more and more YouTubers are turning to production companies for help in developing channels. ”To make it on YouTube, I don’t see how anyone could do it without help right now,” says KassemG, a popular YouTube comedian who joined fellow Web stars ShayCarl and LisaNova to help found Maker Studios in 2009. (EW’s parent company, Time Warner, is a major investor.) Maker now employs a staff of over 300 and has deals with more than 10,000 YouTube channels, the most successful of which is undoubtedly ERB (a.k.a. Epic Rap Battles of History). The first 12 episodes of ERB’s second season, which included such matchups as ”Batman vs. Sherlock Holmes” and ”Moses vs. Santa Claus,” have averaged 33.5 million views. (Admittedly, that’s a cumulative number, but it’s way more than any show on television pulls per episode.) YouTube opened its own production space in L.A. in January, and YouTube partners who apply are given access to the facility, where they can create higher-quality content.

But just because digital studios have gotten into the YouTube game, don’t expect to start seeing Fincher-level cinematography all over the site. Former Disney exec Barry Blumberg, now the EVP of Alloy Digital — the media network that now owns Smosh’s many endeavors — says that’s intentional. ”What Smosh does, or what Ray William Johnson does, or what the Fine Bros. tend to do is [create content] that is just out of reach of what the audience thinks they might be able to do on their own,” he says. ”It creates this communal relationship with the people who are watching our videos. ‘Oh my God. That could be me.”’

So as the Web video format becomes more established, will we see this crop of YouTube superproducers signing traditional production deals with TV studios in the coming years? ”We always made it a point that no matter what, we would stay with what made us popular in the first place,” says Smosh’s Hecox. That’s a mindset that has served him well, especially as the lines between TV and the Web become blurrier every day. ”Whenever I have people come over, the way we watch content is generally either on Netflix or I’ll use my Apple TV and just play YouTube videos from my iPad,” says KassemG. ”That’s what we all do now.”