Keke Palmer discusses her new digital network, KeyTV, with Rolling Stone staff writer CT Jones.
VidCon 2023 is in the books, and among the notable takeaways from the annual gathering of online creators and the fans who follow them was the return of YouTube as title sponsor after TikTok had that distinction last year.
In addition, as further evidence of the ever-blurring line between digital content and the traditional worlds of TV, film, music and sports, the marquee attendee was Keke Palmer. The acclaimed actress, singer, songwriter, host, producer and author recently founded KeyTV, a digital network dedicated to democratizing the entertainment industry by, among other things, creating opportunities for diverse creators.
Fittingly for an established star who is now making major inroads in the digital space, Palmer won a 2021 Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for her portrayal of five family members in her own series, Turnt Up with the Taylors, based on characters who originated on her social media.
More than 55,000 attendees descended on Anaheim for this year's VidCon. We spoke with five, who shared insights on the phenomenon exemplified by Palmer and many other celebrities seeking to expand their brands online.
A writer, director and actor, Rogers is one of the most popular — and ambitious — creators of original scripted content in the digital space. Since launching his YouTube channel in 2006, he has produced a steady flow of comedic shorts that have won awards, earned him a devoted following online and led to opportunities with web platforms and traditional television companies alike, including a Comedy Central collaboration in 2019.
His arsenal of skills is on full display in two recent projects: the dark comedy Bryce, an arsenic-dipped Valentine to a ruthless businesswoman character he has been playing on camera and in live appearances for several years, and Helluva Boss, an anarchic animated farce for which he is on the writing staff and provides the voice of the main character, the head of an assassination company located in the fiery depths of Hell.
Your videos are funny and very silly, but they also showcase genuine filmmaking skills — staging, camera placement, editing. The viewer is laughing but also wondering: How did he do that?
It's a bit of a magic show. It's fun, but there's always illusion. Especially when you're playing multiple characters. I like that effect. I think there's a stigma that if you're an internet comedian, that implies it's cheap. But I think it can be done with just as much love and care as a [feature-length film]. A lot of Wes Anderson's most iconic scenes are theoretically affordable if you had to recreate them. You just need the vision for it.
Who are some of your influences?
Jordan Peele is a big inspiration, specifically because he was known for raunchy comedy like me, but somehow subverted expectations and broke out of that to become a respected director. And John Waters, of course.
His low-budget stuff?
Yeah, the misfits in Baltimore. I feel like I'm a comedian who also wants to be taken seriously for his film style. Not necessarily being Steven Spielberg, but for having a specific way of filming things, which [Peele and Waters] do.
I've always been a filmmaker at heart, and I've always wanted to get to the other side. I went to agencies, I took acting classes, I took film classes. I just wasn't very successful in the traditional route. I had an acting teacher ask, "Do you speak Spanish?" I said, "No." She was like, "Well, the way you look, you're going to need to learn to speak Spanish if you want to make it."
So, I started making videos for YouTube as a showcase because I knew what I could do.
Isn't that how you got Helluva Boss?
Yeah. Vivienne [Medrano], the creator of the show, saw one of the series I did on YouTube and liked how I could tell a story and play with characters. So, she took me out for coffee and said, "I want to do this animated project." Then she said she wanted me to [do voice work and] write for it. I thought it was just some YouTube thing that was going to fizzle out. But the show picked up traction, and everyone took it much more seriously. I didn't know the animation crowd, but it was the kind of fandom I was hoping for all these years.
We've had two seasons and are working on a third. It's entirely independent. I think it's important to break the stigma that there's only one way to do things. We have fewer resources, of course. But I think the more that creators like Vivienne break into the industry, the more we realize that this other weird version of content can do well. That's been the biggest disconnect between traditional media and new media, essentially.
I work at the Television Academy, where most of the members work in traditional television. But here at VidCon, I'm seeing the intersection of online content and traditional TV. You've consistently raised the bar for production values. For instance, your recent project Bryce looks like it was a complicated shoot.
It was done cheaply and efficiently, but there are as many moving parts as a normal production. I've studied how TV shows function, and I ran a show called Magic Funhouse for two seasons.
You've done a lot of silly videos in which you've played dozens of over-the-top characters, both male and female. Bryce feels more focused and serious.
It's an homage to a character I've done for a long time. She's gotten me a lot of work. Every actor has roles where someone will see them play that part and it'll give them an idea of, Oh, they can do this. Bryce has been that for me for a while. I've played her for seven years now, and every time I play her, her makeup and clothes get a little bit better.
The series is also a love letter to the '80s as a filmmaker. I love '80s music, I love the fashion, I love the women. I love the way movies were so hopeful. And they always ended brightly, with a great lesson learned.
With Bryce, I wanted to do all of that except have it be about a villain's festering. Maleficent and Cruella are great movies, but they make the lead characters sympathetic. I wanted one of those stories where you lean into the fact that this is a villain origin story, so they have to eventually become this rotten person.
I wanted to make Bryce as vile as I could. I explain to the audience how she got there, but I don't expect them to feel sorry for her. That's real life. People become terrible. It's sad, it's tragic, but it happens. I'm trying to tell that story as poetically as possible.
How does YouTube factor into that?
With YouTube, there's not a producer above you. We've constructed an engine that allows us to make something very beautiful very cheaply. Since the beginning, I've always made these productions as a beacon to the other side. I've been doing this for half my life now — half my life in a seance room, trying to get the industry to see me.
These productions are my crystal ball. They're my prayers, essentially. I make things like Bryce because they get industry attention and get people to watch. And it shows, hey, I'm not just some YouTuber. I'm still technically, by title, a YouTuber doing this at a YouTuber's budget. And yet, when people watch it, they don't feel like they're watching a YouTube video. They allow their imagination to transcend into this other place. That's what TV and film can do. And nowadays, TV and YouTube are synonymous. I watch TV shows, and I switch over to YouTube and watch YouTube videos. Same thing, same screen.
Christy Carlson Romano
A show biz vet since childhood, Romano began acting at six, made her Broadway musical debut at fourteen and on the cusp of her twenties was a Disney Channel triple threat, with roles in the live-action comedies Even Stevens and Cadet Kelly and a gig voicing the lead character in the animated adventure Kim Possible. She continued to work in the theater, on television and in films through her mid-twenties, but when on-camera work slowed down, she began contemplating a second act.
With an eye toward directing, she studied filmmaking at Columbia University while expanding her brand through digital content creation. Today, she and her husband, Brendan Rooney, are building a burgeoning media company that includes the podcast network PodCo (producing titles for herself as well as others), while she remains active on YouTube (cooking videos, slice-of-life confessionals and more) and, of course, frequent updates on Instagram and TikTok.
Some people create content on social media in hopes of breaking into television, but you did it the other way around. How did you identify that opportunity and take advantage of it?
I went back to college at Columbia and got my film degree. I wanted to direct and was shadowing on Disney productions. I was pregnant at the time, and I realized I could do sponsored content to get baby stuff.
It was helpful at a time when I didn't know what I wanted to do in the industry anymore. I thought there was a big push for female directors, and I could be part of that movement. But I didn't realize that was just as competitive as anything else I tried to do.
I needed to learn how to aggregate a fan base and monetize my content. I wanted to create content that was sustainable — to be able to continue to do it. And I wanted to create a brand that was wholesome enough. I struggled with having to walk the line of being sponsor friendly but also interesting. I'm okay with pushing the envelope now, but when I started, I wasn't. When I look back, I wasn't having fun with the process because I was scared.
When I started on YouTube, I was doing cooking-show stuff. That was super sponsor friendly, but it plateaued at a certain point because people didn't feel I was being authentic. I was a traditional Hollywood person who had been told not to say things that were outside the media training that I had. And here I was, starting to open up about my life.
But I knew that when I was interviewing people, there was a whole other conversation to be had. So, there was an organic growth. When you greenlight yourself, social media gives you the ability to develop your brand in real time. It's wonderful in that way.
And you can see it happening through engagement statistics.
Exactly. OG YouTubers had really high view counts and really high subscribers; it's way harder to earn a view and much harder to earn a subscriber on YouTube now. So, YouTube is more like a brick-and-mortar shop.
But it's still an important part of a digital strategy.
Yes, because they're able to offer us information as creators. We can see where people drop off at a certain point, and we see their demographics, and where they're located, and we can optimize our content.
All my high-level content, like my podcasts that I film in-studio, exist on YouTube. But I'm not monetizing primarily on YouTube. I monetize through sponsored content. I cut down assets, I put them onto my socials because they look good. People are competitive with production value. It's almost like you're producing your own television show. It's got to be high-level, or you can't compete as well.
It sounds as if people responded when you were more candid and compelling.
I definitely saw a bump in my engagement and followers when I opened up and was more authentic. I had to make that decision. I had to feel supported, and I had to feel like I had nothing to lose. For a long time, I was convinced that I could only make it in Hollywood one way — a casting call and then a callback and then booking the job and then getting a greenlight and then my character not being written off the show. The success rate for traditional Hollywood is really slim.
The hardest, most stultifying part of it was that I couldn't live my life. I kept waiting for the phone to ring. That being said, I'm not somebody who hates on traditional Hollywood. As a case in point, tons of folks who are huge on TikTok come to me and are on my podcast now. And they're like, "I want to be traditional — what do I do?" I'm like, "I don't know how to help you there." But I do wish them the best. None of this is easy. It's not easy to get a job on HBO, and it's not easy to go viral. That's what everyone needs to know.
In the digital space, as you said earlier, sustainable, consistent content is crucial.
Crucial. I'm so committed to consistent content. That's the difference in terms of what it means to be a content creator — when that train leaves the station, very few people have the privilege of hopping off it.
How often are you approached by people who, like you, had careers in traditional television and now want to move into the digital space?
I'm the co-founder of a podcast company with my husband, and we have a lot of people coming to us, asking, "Could you please produce a rewatch podcast of the show that I used to be on?" Or, "I have a really great idea — can you take a lunch with us?" It's wonderful because I feel like we know how to handle that stage of life for somebody who's an actor.
It's scary to say, "I don't know what my next steps are." The idea of going to digital was never fully accepted. It's like when people used to say that going to Broadway was a bad thing to do, which is so ironic to me. It's not a lesser format at all. It's just different. It's a democratized marketplace.
Funnyman Matthew James Smith — that's DangMattSmith to you — has built a massive following over the past decade in the deceptively simple genre of reaction videos. From the depthless well of internet videos, he curates clips — the more absurd, outlandish or embarrassing (preferably all three) the better — and comments on them in an engaging, irreverent, mostly PG style that has gained him fourteen million subscribers and more than a billion views on YouTube.
Between his boyish charm, content that's cutting but not cruel, and those eye-popping engagement stats, Smith has scored partnerships with major retail brands and television networks, including Nickelodeon, Fox, Lionsgate, Old Spice and Footlocker. Add to that a line of apparel and accessories, and the L.A.-based Smith is a prime example of a creator who has built a potent business straddling the digital and traditional spaces.
Television and the online creator community are intersecting more frequently nowadays. How did it happen for you?
I actually started off wanting to do acting, and I did stand-up at places like the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory. Then, I had some friends who started YouTube channels, and I decided to start one. It's a place where I'm the director, the writer, the editor — I'm doing it all. As you grow, you realize it becomes a business, and you have to learn about that business. And then more opportunities come — brands, [advertising] campaigns, TV opportunities. A lot of friends are starting production companies and moving into TV. At the same time, people on TV are moving onto social media. For me, I like the balance of having control but also being able to be a part of someone else's production. And then go back to my home online as more of a first love.
In your videos, to what extent are you yourself or playing a character?
It's an exaggerated version of myself, but it's all me. Even in real life, there are times where I'm that same character that I am on YouTube. It turns up. But in the videos, depending on what I'm watching, what skit I'm doing, what I'm reacting to — it's all parts of me. I find that's a lot easier to maintain long term, and I've been doing it for a long time. If I'm able to be myself and just a little bit exaggerated at times, it's a whole lot easier and helps me balance my personal life with the business.
How do you find the videos you react to?
I have a team of editors who are great. They help take my load off editing the videos. But as far as the actual content, it's me doing the research. I still love doing it and finding the ideas, because when it does well, there's more pride in it for me because I'm a part of it. I'm not just sitting back and having people do the work for me. Eventually, I may take a step back, but for now, I still love being a part of every video.
When I talk to digital creators, they say that to maintain a presence online, you have to be disciplined and post content on a regular basis.
Absolutely. Thankfully, I've built the channel in a way where it's not so overwhelming that I feel I have to take a huge break. In all the years I've been doing this, I've never stepped away for longer than a couple of days. I have a foundation set, and I've got the team of editors who make it a lot easier for me to maintain and have consistency and keep the quality high while posting daily.
Do you cut shorter versions of your YouTube videos for TikTok?
Some content is repurposed for other platforms. But pretty much all my TikTok videos are original. I'll film those myself and edit them myself. Because again, for me, it's still fun.
What have you done in traditional television — guest appearances on shows, commercials, brand promotions, things like that?
I've worked a lot with Nickelodeon. We just did the Kids' Choice Awards Orange Carpet. We've also done TV pilots for Nickelodeon. I've done guest appearances there. I've also worked with Disney Channel, done a couple of guest appearances there. No feature films yet, but I'm always open to it. It's great seeing friends who came up at the same time in the YouTube space getting opportunities in movies. There's always a sense of pride that traditional media can respect social media influencers.
I've heard that a person's social media numbers can affect casting decisions.
Right. The pull of some influencers is being recognized more and more. Followers really connect with the YouTuber, the TikToker, the influencer. And if they're in a movie or TV show, they want to support them. They want to see the growth of that influencer. It's interesting to see that dynamic. You've got Hollywood, and then social media — they go back and forth. You have A-list actors trying to do YouTube videos and collab with YouTubers. I think it's great to see that recognition and mutual respect. All the social media influencers that I know have a lot of respect for the craft of acting and really take it seriously. They know how hard they work on their YouTube videos, and they know how hard actors work.
Where do you want to go from here?
To the top! Ultimately, it would be building a production company. Build it in a way similar to a Tyler Perry, where I get to write, direct if I want, or just produce something else. I can act if I want, make a cameo, or kind of sit back. And just constantly put out projects on a much higher scale.
Fede Goldenberg is global head of television and film AVOD partnerships for YouTube. "Basically," he says, "that means that I lead our partnerships on YouTube with media companies across TV and film."
Goldenberg began his career in his native Brazil, where he was working at a major broadcaster when Google recruited him. He joined YouTube in 2010 ("early, early days") and moved to Los Angeles in 2014. Since then, he has been at the forefront of content and technology, working with major names such as Disney, NBCU, Paramount, Warner Bros. Discovery, A+E, Netflix, Sony and more. Among the many changes he has witnessed during his two decades in the business: companies that used to file lawsuits when their content appeared on YouTube are now some of his closest collaborators.
One of the recent developments in this space is the concept of "multiformat," which he discussed in detail as moderator of a VidCon panel on the topic.
How do you define multiformat?
Multiformat is a new concept that refers to the evolution of how users consume content on video platforms and social media in general. A few years ago, if you went to Instagram, it was mostly pictures. If you went to Twitter, mostly text. On YouTube, mostly horizontal video on demand. With the evolution of the [digital] space, new formats arose, like vertical video that you just scroll through. That's YouTube Shorts or TikTok.
There are also all kinds of live streams. You can live stream an event, like a red carpet or a concert or a game. There are even 24/7 live stream FAST channels.
You could have all of them do full-episode sampling. Companies upload full episodes for free on their channels as a way to promote a new show or a new season or whatever. For movies, they may upload the first ten minutes for free.
These partners do compilations, like best moments of last week's episode or all the moments where a character was funny doing this or that, twenty-minute compilations, thirty-minute compilations. When you think about each one of those formats, they're very different.
So, what we call multiformat is when a publisher uses all of those formats, whether for the same content or different content. They upload shorts, clips, compilations, full episodes, live streams, podcasts, et cetera. That's what we call multi-format.
In the early days of YouTube, media companies would threaten legal action when their content showed up on YouTube. Now they're your partners.
There was a big evolution in that principle. The concept used to be that you had to hold back content in a single place — for example, on linear TV or a streaming platform — and then the audience would come to you. But the companies realized that the audience is on these big platforms. YouTube has two billion users a month. No other platform has such reach.
So, you might as well fish where the fish are, and give the users a better taste of what you have to offer. That's full-episode sampling. So instead, you're not cannibalizing your value on your platform by giving away one episode for free or maybe a full season for free for a limited amount of time. You're giving users an opportunity to discover your content, to become aware, to sample it.
If they like it, they may subscribe. They may go watch it on TV. They may go to a theater. They may pay to watch. Everyone understands that you've got to give love to get love. You can't expect fans to just come to you by giving them nothing for free.
They're going to find you one way or another. How are they coming to YouTube?
They may come to YouTube for a music clip, for a gaming video, for a creator, for a TV show or film, for a DIY video — for any kind of content. You come for one reason, and you stay for another reason. That's how the discovery funnel works. Once you enter the funnel, you discover the content. And when the algorithm sees that you like this. How about this?
A funnel that's wider at the top and narrows at the bottom?
Yes. The classic discovery funnel is awareness, consideration, conversion. The broadest part of the funnel is where you may offer users a full episode for free, or shorts, or a live stream for casual users. Once they're hooked, they go to your channel. How about this behind-the-scenes video? How about this other video? That's consideration. And then, ultimately, conversion down the funnel is, I'm ready to pay for the service. You go from meeting to dating to getting married.
And there's monetization and promotion.
Yes. Primarily revenue sharing from advertising.
And the scale is huge.
Huge. Imagine billions and billions of views monetized with ads across their entire portfolio. It's a significant business for them. But YouTube has many other ways to monetize content. Users can buy stickers, super stickers, and then pay the creator a fee to have a sticker or super chat or memberships. YouTube also has a paid tier called YouTube Premium, without ads. You pay a monthly fee. The companies also get a revenue share off that [from the subscription fee]. But the primary way is ads.
Has the relationship between YouTube and media companies reached maturity? Have you maxed out your multiformats?
I think it's just the beginning, to be honest. If you think more broadly in terms of where YouTube is now, everything we just talked about is on YouTube main — what we call the main app, which is free and ad-supported.
There's also YouTube TV, which is a digital [subscription television service]. It has a lot of the same partners — Paramount, Disney, NBC, Warner Brothers Discovery. Last year we launched a product called Prime Time Channels on YouTube, which allows you to subscribe to an SVOD service on the YouTube app.
So, when you think in terms of a so-called flywheel, you go from watching a clip or a trailer of, say, a show on Paramount+, like Star Trek. Then maybe you'll find the full episode for free on YouTube. There will be a prompt saying "Click here to subscribe to Paramount+" right on the YouTube app. You click and subscribe. Within two clicks, you're in the Paramount+ environment on YouTube. You don't have to have a separate app or even leave YouTube.
YouTube is continuously evolving the different businesses we offer media companies. We do what we do best — we do the technology, and we aggregate the audience. And the media companies do what they do best — the content. That's where magic happens.
As co-CEO of Viral Nation, which he founded with his partner Mat Micheli, Joe Gagliese has helped to build the firm from one of the earliest influencer marketing agencies to a global digital and social innovation force that, per his company bio, "powers the social ecosystem through integrated solutions that align strategy, talent, media and technology." Translation: Viral Nation now works with tens of thousands of influencers and leading brands such as Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, Meta and Uber.
Since starting the company, he has seen the perception of the online creation space change from dismissiveness to desirability. Yes, digital content creators still want to work with traditional brands and media businesses, but more and more, established celebrities in the worlds of entertainment and sports also want to build a presence online. Viral Nation helps both groups turn the currency of fame into the currency that fills bank accounts.
You were one of the first to identify a market representing online creators. How did you start?
We founded Viral Nation in late 2013-ish as an agency for creators when that wasn't really a thing. The idea was to develop ways to monetize what they were doing. There were all these kids getting, like, 500,000 views a day, and I was like, "I think brands might be into this. Let me try to fight for you to see if I can do it."
Since then, we've evolved to become the largest in the world with these categories. We're the largest talent agency globally of social media creators only — non-celebrities. And the largest influencer marketing company separately that brings brands into this space, and a technology company that builds social media tools for the space.
What have been some of the major changes over the years?
When we started, influencers never had a good rap. In the early days, if you said you were an influencer, people like you and I would balk at it and be like, "You're a stupid little kid who's making dance videos." TV was the same way. And big agencies like CAA were like, "Who are these guys?"
That created the psychology of the creator wanting to become a celebrity because for many years, I think creators felt like they would only be validated as real entertainers or real celebrities if they did real celebrity things: "I want to be in a commercial, I want to be in a movie or a TV show."
After we started our company, from 2014 probably until 2020, when an influencer we were working with would get super big, I'd get a phone call, and they'd be like, "Joe, I want to thank you so much for everything you've done. I'm leaving Viral Nation. I'm going to CAA." We would lose talent to [Hollywood agencies] because they predicated the beginning of their influencer businesses on going to big creators and saying, "Hey, you're huge here, I'll get you huge here."
What would happen is, creators would go on auditions, or they'd get a role, and they'd get their SAG day rate, and they'd get pushed around, and the producer didn't know who they were. And they'd say, "Joe, making my YouTube videos is a lot better than this." Because it was kind of starting from scratch.
Eventually, creators started to embrace the fact that what they did was equally as important. So, a lot of them came back to say, "I'm as famous, if not more famous, than some of these folks, and I just want to practice my craft." What was interesting was, when that transition started happening is when we saw celebrities trying to come this way.
What do you think caused that shift?
A lot of it was Will Smith. He said, "I'm going to become a vlogger on YouTube," and people were shocked. He was going to creators and asking for help and having them join him in his videos. He was really trying to be a creator. And for an A-list star to come into this world and say, "I want to do this; this is good for me," changed everything.
Now we're seeing a lot more celebrities going, "Hey, I have this fame, but I don't get to capture any of it." I think a lot of them are realizing, "Don't I want to own the audience that loves me?" It's like a decentralization of media where companies have a lot of control over celebrities and athletes. At the end of the day, they're only valuable in the arena they play in, because the owner, which is the media company or the studio, brings in the people to watch them. But they're obviously a draw.
Nowadays, I think celebrities are going, "If I can get ten million of my fans to follow me on Instagram and YouTube and TikTok, now I'm my own media figure. So now when Warner Bros. hires me to do a movie, you pay me for my acting, but you also pay me to promote it to all the people who love me." I see it as an asset that celebrities are growing and building upon. I also see it as a bit of an insurance policy.
What do you mean by that?
We have a division called Creator Studios where we take celebrities and make them creators. People like [MLB star] Mookie Betts, [NFL star] Tyreek Hill and [model] Amber Rose — folks who are traditionally on that side of the fence.
We say to them, "We'll build a channel with you. You own the majority, and we'll do all the work. And we're going to help you learn how to be a creator." I'll be with an athlete who is exceptional, makes millions of dollars a year, and I'll say, "What if something happens, or you leave the game? Think of social media as your big insurance policy." People with large audiences get opportunities because of it. There's been a huge power flip of creators wanting to go that way. And now the celebrities are coming this way.
I want to be clear that I don't want to generalize, because I've also met amazing athletes and celebrities who have said, "Joe, look, I feel more comfortable having the freedom to be myself, to focus on the sport and not social. I like to keep my private life private. I understand the benefit of what you're telling me, but I'm good with what I have."
I appreciate those folks, but I think for most of them, it's almost a crime not to do it, because they're leaving so much on the table. We've already seen players get drafted higher because of their YouTube channels. You see teams give favorable treatment to players who have big social audiences because when the kid posts his new jersey, they do $6 million in sales of the jersey. And they didn't have to do anything.