By Grady Smith
Updated March 20, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT
Google Inc.

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 8.2 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 ( with exclusive video content and merchandise. They may have started as a one-off viral sensation, but their enduring 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. “We started seeing formats and shows and high quality shows put out on a regular, steady basis… We started seeing React, Annoying Orange, Epic Meal Time — these formats are similar to television in the way that they’re executed and released.”

In fact, The Fine Bros.’ two latest ventures are very similar to TV — they’re both scripted series. The duo recently wrapped Season 1 of MyMusic, a weekly music-themed sitcom that stressed interactivity with fans and offered ample behind-the-scenes bonus content throughout a week. MyMusic‘s first season, comprised of 34 individual 6-10 minute episodes, averaged about 300,000 viewers per video — nearly half the audience that watched HBO’s Girls finale live on Sunday night. Earlier this month, the Fines got into the animation world, too, with a new program called Emo Dad, which they plan on releasing monthly.

It would be remiss to suggest that YouTube is entirely dominated by these kinds of shows — that’s not the case just yet. The site — 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.) Speaking of the “Harlem Shake” here’s a recent React about the phenomenon:

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.”

This isn’t an especially new direction for YouTube. In 2011, the platform successfully launched the YouTube Original Channel Initiative, a $100 million program to create 100 original channels. The deal found YouTube partnering with stars like Shaquille O’Neal and Amy Poehler, as well as media entities like Motor Trend and the WWE. In October, the site announced 60 additional channels, and Google invested another $200 million into the program to help market the massive slate of programming. YouTube is also planning to roll out paid subscriptions for individual channels this spring.

As competition for viewers and the need for high-quality content increases, more and more YouTubers are turning to production companies for help in developing their personal 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 (and are accepted) are given access to the facility, where they can create higher-quality content with snazzy lights and camera equipment. The show Learning Town, which stars Felicia Day, is one of many that now shoots at YouTube Space LA (pictured below).

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? For this digitally-minded generation of content creators, that seems unlikely. “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 loyal mindset that has served him well over the years, and besides, the lines between TV and the Web are becoming blurrier every day. Soon, people may not even see the difference between TV and Web fare at all. “Content is just content,” says KassemG. “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. That’s what we all do now.”

For more YouTube (and general) nerdiness: Follow @EWGradySmith

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