I’ve written before about the (increasingly irrelevant) divide between producers of scripted programming and YouTube, a remnant of when YouTube was an “amateur” space. Keith Battista, creator of The Professionals, a sitcom about a team of assassins working under the auspices of an IT company called The Nerd Unit, is a great example of how YouTube has worked for low-budget, scripted productions. The channel has nearly 100,000 subscribers and 3.2 million views, an extraordinary amount for a show with 10-minute episodes.
It isn’t as rosy or comfortable a relationship as it would seem, however. “YouTube’s big thing is one video a week, which is really not possible for what we do,” said Battista, citing some playbook-friendly programming advice (the subject of a recent IAWTV event).
The Professionals is nevertheless a saavy idea, built on several tried-and-true elements on web programming: geek culture (YouTube success story: ex. The Online Gamer), office politics (YouTube success story: ex. Awkward Black Girl), brash humor (YouTube success story: ex. everything) and a hint of violence for good measure. They did make some tweaks to the Office-style format: “Our cameraman is a character in the show. I don’t know if there’s any show out there like that,” said co-creator Mike Michaels.
Battista cited as inspiration classic web shows like We Need Girlfriends and The Guild but said the real source was personal: he worked in support, even shooting the show in his office on weekends. “Working in computer support you sort of want to kill these people sometimes. You sort of have this rage that builds up inside you,” he joked.
Battista paired up with Michaels to produce the show on a low budget. “The budget is ‘don’t go poor,’” Michaels said. Everything in the earlier episodes was paid for out of pocket.
The pair released the first episode in early 2009 and gained only 250 subscribers in that year. Through social networking, the team started to befriend other YouTubers. As more and more popular YouTubers posted the show, their subscription base went up by thousands. Eventually one of those fans passed the show to Ray William Johnson, currently among the site’s top creators.
“The good thing about Ray is that he saw the hard work and appreciated what we did and he helped us out, which was awesome of him,” Battista said.
Johnson eventually guest-starred on the show and lent it some real estate on his page. When Battista and Michaels released the Johnson episode it raked in about half a million views in around a week. Some of those viewers went back and watched the earlier episodes, lifting their viewership and subscriptions considerably.
Maintaining that audience has been a challenge. Currently viewership in the second season is down, which the team ascribes to the difficulty in keeping a longer-form indie project alive.
“People who do the vlogging and the simpler stuff in terms of content, they can do it a lot more frequently and amass that audience that we have a more difficult time doing, because a) it’s harder to get people hooked into a show and b) we don’t release stuff once or twice a week, it’s once every other week, if that,” Battista said.
Battista and Michaels are currently working on the second half of the second season and pitching the show to online and TV networks, which has elicited some interest. The first season is still available through their channel. I’ve pasted both premieres below.