Nickelodeon and Pocket.watch are bringing seven-year-old YouTube superstar Ryan, from Ryan ToysReview (18 million subscribers), to a slightly bigger screen with their new linear live-action series Ryan’s Mystery Playdate.
Premiering tomorrow, the 20 x half-hour series stars the social media star, his family and a cast of animated characters who work together on creative challenges to discover the identity of his special playdate guest star. The challenges range from stacking pancakes to catching slimy frogs and deflating a room full of whoopee cushions, while guest stars could be anyone from fellow social media celebs to professional athletes.
Since his YouTube channel launched in 2015, it has become one of the platform’s most popular channels, and the child star has become a giant in the kids entertainment industry. The linear series is Pocket.watch’s latest project in a partnership with Ryan’s family, which began in 2017 when they first teamed up to create a multiplatform franchise development plan. Today, the brand has expanded into publishing, licensing, original programming and merchandising. Pocket.watch turned the YouTube channel into a massive franchise and created a new book imprint called Watch This Book! with Simon & Schuster; launched a toy and apparel line named Ryan’s World; signed deals with a myriad of licensing partners; and kicked off a 75-location experiential tour at Walmart locations across the US.
The only thing the young YouTuber hasn’t tackled is linear—until now. But the transition from YouTube to TV was not a difficult one, says Pocket.watch CCO Albie Hecht, who recently shared some insights with Kidscreen about the challenges behind production, balancing the feel of his YouTube channel with a network TV production, and why Nickelodeon was the right partner for this series.
“His whole family has a great dynamic. The father is such a comedic character, and his mother holds it all together, explaining challenges and what’s going on. It’s just like how they are on the YouTube channel,” says Hecht. “And then there’s Ryan. He has the kind of face we can cut to when we’re filming because when he laughs, everyone laughs.”
At the core, Hecht says the idea for Mystery Playdate comes down to the YouTuber’s infectious energy—he just comes across as everyone’s best friend.
The idea for the show arose after the digital media company ran a contest where kids had a chance to win a playdate with the mini vlogger. When Pocket.watch brought the idea to Nickelodeon, the kidcaster didn’t need much convincing. Nickelodeon (known for having worked with digital stars in the past) was quick to give him his own show, Hecht says, after seeing the YouTube star’s massive audience and appeal.
“Nickelodeon was a natural partner for this. Not only had it pioneered live-action Nick Jr. shows like Blues Clues, it also had begun to understand the power of social media stars with JoJo Siwa,” says Hecht.
After the premiere, Nick will bring back the original promotion and give kids an opportunity to have a playdate with Ryan. A new episode of the show will also bow on Saturday, April 20 before moving to its regular time slot on Fridays. Short-form content including behind-the-scenes videos and additional footage, as well as full-length episodes, will be added to NickJr.com and the Nick Jr. app after it debuts.
Convincing Nick to air the show may have been easy, but producing it wasn’t. One of the main challenges was in trying to stay true to the original YouTube channel‘s brand, says Hecht, while also needing to show audiences that it offers something they can’t get by just going online.
The show’s production kept a crew of 100 people busy for six months. Ryan’s videos are known for a roving camera, close-ups as he’s unboxing gifts, animated characters, colorful costumes and some special effects. Now, all of the intimate action that’s captured by one camera in a family’s living room has to be balanced against huge sets and technology. By keeping the family dynamic at the center of the action, though, Hecht says the team was able to bridge those personal moments with the more elaborate production.
Pocket.watch maintained the authentic and unscripted nature of the YouTube channel by not having any writers, instead hiring five challenge producers led by EP Jeff Sutphen (Figure It Out). The producers decided what each challenge would be and made sure it was safe and entertaining for those on set. Dialogue is improvised, and the only portions that are scripted are scene transitions and challenge explanations. To further protect the brand, the prodco maintains editorial control and makes final decisions on the editing process.
Hecht did not provide any details on the budget, but says one of the biggest challenges of production was building the sets because it had to maintain the look of Ryan’s videos while creating something that was bigger, and more of a spectacle, to draw audiences to TV.
“We’ve taken these great and familiar YouTube challenges and blown them up so it’s more mess, more obstacles and more fun props and costuming to take it to a higher level that the audience will recognize and love,” says Hecht. “But they will also say, ‘Wow! I’ve never seen that before.’”