In a case of art imitating art—with a bit of, if you can’t beat ’em join ’em mixed in—Disney Channel has hired a couple of writers with a successful YouTube channel to work on one of their shows.
Tracy Bitterolf and Miranda Russo, from the web series The Wing Girls, now work on Disney’s freshman series Bizaardvark, a comedy about a pair of best friends who star in their own online show produced at Vuuugle Studio, loosely based on YouTube’s space.
Moving to TV fulfills a lifetime dream for Bitterolf and Russo, who won an Emmy for their work on the web. But it also provides important insights for both Bizaardvark and Disney at a time when traditional TV networks are seeing young viewers move online.
Adam Bonnett, executive VP, original programming, Disney Channel, said adding people with expertise in the YouTube culture was a benefit for the show and the network.
“I don’t think we were expecting to take people away from YouTube. It’s a part of a kid’s life,” Bonnett said.
Disney is spending more marketing dollars in the digital space, because that’s where kids are. And marketing for Bizaardvark is running on YouTube.
Kids have a unique two-way relationship with YouTube, he said. “I think Bizaardvark is an opportunity to tap into that. If you watch YouTube, well, you’re going to love Bizaardvark, too.”
Ultimately, the decision to hire Bitterolf and Russo was made by executive producer Eric Friedman, but Bonnett noted that they brought something special to the project. Not only were the writers familiar with creating a web series, but their friendship mirrored that of Frankie and Paige, the main characters in Bizaardvark, played by Madison Hu and Olivia Rodrigo.
“What Tracy and Miranda brought to the table was they weren’t just a writing team, they’re best friends. We employ many writing teams on our show and they’re not always best friends,” Bonnett said.
“The last benefit of having them on board was their expertise in the YouTube culture,” he added. “Their knowledge of this world was a huge, huge asset to us because it was really important that the show feel authentic.”
Bitterolf and Russo say Bizaardvark is indeed similar to their YouTube experience. “It’s a pretty Disney-fied version but it’s pretty accurate,” Russo said. “You’re really worried about your brand and your image and you’re interacting with fans,” added Bitterolf. “We’ve been able to use a lot of that on the show when we’re coming up with ideas for Bizaardvark.”
The duo started doing online video because they wanted to write and perform for TV. “We kept waiting in line for auditions and nobody picked us,” said Russo. “We said fine, let’s do our own thing. We both wanted to play all these crazy characters, so we just made our own opportunity.”
Now, being with a network TV series is almost everything they hoped for. “You’ve got eight other people in the room with you, all bouncing ideas off of each other,” said Bitterolf. “And we’ve got much more to work with. We’re not using props out of our closet. There’s actually a prop department and there’s money to do things with. It’s so weird.”
Bitterolf and Russo were able to make a living with web video. They had 350,000 subscribers and supplemented with work by doing brand projects. They also did a book and a pilot.
But working for Disney has a lot more cachet with family and others. “When I used to apply for an apartment, they’re like ‘what do you do for a living?’ Now [doing YouTube] is a little more common,” Bitterolf recalled. “If I put down I write for Disney, I’m pimpin’.”
Bitterolf and Russo want to have a show of their own someday. “We look at this as a really good training ground to hone our skills and see what TV is like,” Russo said.
Disney’s Bonnett could see hiring more YouTube writers as well. Bitterolf and Russo introduced Disney to the “draw my life” online phenomenon, which was incorporated into an episode, and YouTube personalities have appeared in roles on the show.
“The thing that I learned was it’s important to take risks on talent that might not traditionally have the right résumé and experience because they bring something else to the table,” he said. “We’re looking for new and fresh creators across the board, whether they’re from YouTube or not.”