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Disney Channel Casts Social Media Influencers as TV Embraces Digitally Native Stars

Variety logo Variety 12/7/2016 Elizabeth Wagmeister
© Provided by Variety

Life is imitating art on the Disney Channel.

Bizaardvark,” which premiered on the kids’ cabler earlier this year, is a tween sitcom about two young girls who make videos for an online channel. The show stars Vine phenomenon Jake Paul, whose casting marked the first-ever social media star to become a series regular on the Disney Channel. And now, a slew of social media stars are following his lead, utilizing “Bizaardvark’s” platform to jump into TV.

Guest stars on “Bizaardvark” have included YouTube sensation Lilly Singh, Logan Paul, Alisha Marie, Meredith Foster, JiffPom, Grumpy Cat, Thomas Sanders, Eva Gutowski and Rosanna Pansino, who made $6 million across her multiple projects this year, as reported earlier this week.

The growing list of names reflects the recent trend that is bringing digitally-native stars from their digital home-bases to the more traditional world of TV.

This summer, YouTuber Colleen Ballinger, better known to her legions of online fans as Miranda Sings, graced the cover of Variety, to discuss her scripted Netflix series, “Haters Back Off.” Perhaps the most successful digital star to crossover is Issa Rae with HBO’s “Insecure” — but while many networks have made an effort to cast digital stars hoping to translate their followers into viewers, the wave of casting still isn’t a guaranteed road to success.

Last year, Fox cast Vine star Andrew Bachelor, a.k.a. King Bach, in a comedy pilot that ultimately was not picked up — but this season, the broadcaster is trying again, developing yet another comedy vehicle for him. YouTube phenom Grace Helbig led her own talk show on E!, but the project was short-lived.

With Paul and the roster of guest stars, Disney Channel seems to have found a way to successfully showcase new media talent with “Bizaardvark’s” digitally influenced plot being a natural fit.

“We created a world that is really portraying this YouTube world that is huge and current right now. I think having the actual influencers on the show gave the series legitimacy,” says “Bizaardvark” executive producer Eric Friedman. “The kids who are watching know this world and seeing the real life influencers on ‘Bizaardvark’ helps make it more authentic and real.”

Disney casting execs Cornelia Frame and Leah Buono say that aside from organic storytelling, social media stars help boost awareness for the show.

“When I speak to the tweens, they know all those names and they were very excited,” Frame says. “It was a lot of added bonus to gain those added eyeballs.”

While the network certainly benefits from the new casting craze, the influencers are equally as excited to step onto a Disney set.

“Being able to share the small screen with my older brother Logan was such a blessing. For two regular kids from Ohio, it was a surreal experience that we will cherish for the rest of our lives,” Paul says of his internet-famous sibling’s guest gig on his show.

Many of the social media stars cameo as themselves or play a version of themselves on “Bizaardvark,” but for the ones who are portraying new characters, guest-starring also gives them a chance to flex their acting muscles.

“A lot of influencers are not actors by nature — they’re just used to being themselves on their channel or anything they do,” Buono says. “I think a lot of them are looking to expand their world and expand their opportunities. Acting and getting into the scripted on-camera world seems like an easy transition for them. A lot of them are starting to take acting classes.”

As Disney leads the charge of casting social media stars, more networks may be inclined to follow suit. But there could be one roadblock: timing.

“These guys just jumped into it. The only issue was their schedules,” Frame says with a laugh. “These influencers have these crazy, busy schedules because they’re doing so many projects. The bigger issue was getting time with them.”

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