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To get to Hollywood, make a left at YouTube

Ben Johnson and Aparna Alluri Feb 17, 2015
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For the second edition of From the Hills to the Valley – our series comparing Hollywood and Silicon Valley – we spoke to someone who belongs to both worlds. Issa Rae created and stars in The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, an award-winning series on YouTube. This month, she released a memoir by the same name, and is working on a pilot for HBO.

Rae believes it was her success on YouTube that brought her the opportunity with HBO.  

“HBO would never have heard of me or even seen any of my stuff had it not been for YouTube,” she says.

Why YouTube? Rae had pitched a few shows to networks, but she soon realised that they had a different perception of what the audience wanted to see on TV. She found that her ideas, especially those that involved “content of color,” were often met with reluctance or a lack of enthusiasm.

“I wanted to create a show about black people in college, and they were saying that’s too segmented,” she says. “When I wanted to make ‘Awkward Black Girl,’ I knew that if they didn’t want to see a show about something as mainstream as black people in college, they would never go for ‘Awkward Black Girl.’ They would never believe they exist even.”

Rae thinks streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon, which have abandoned the pilot model used by so many TV studios in favor of releasing shows one season at a time, give creators more freedom to experiment with stories that networks shy away from. Internet-first video, she says, will lead to more diverse programming, because online content is so closely tied to social media, which itself is very diverse.

But the biggest challenge to creating online content, Rae says, is the pressure to produce on schedule.

“Had I been consistently releasing content on a weekly basis, I would have had a much bigger following,” she says. “People will forget about you if you’re not on their radar constantly. Audiences are just really fickle. There’s no formula online outside of being consistent.”