ChuChu TV, the company responsible for some of the most widely viewed toddler content on YouTube, has a suitably cute origin story. Vinoth Chandar, the CEO, had always played around on YouTube, making Hindu devotionals and little videos of his father, a well-known Indian music producer. But after he and his wife had a baby daughter, whom they nicknamed “Chu Chu,” he realized he had a new audience—of one. He drew a Chu Chu–like character in Flash, the animation program, and then created a short video of the girl dancing to the popular and decidedly unwoke Indian nursery rhyme “Chubby Cheeks.” (“Curly hair, very fair / Eyes are blue, lovely too / Teacher’s pet, is that you?”)
Chu Chu loved it. “She wanted me to repeat it again and again,” Chandar recalls. Which gave him an idea: “If she is going to like it, the kids around the world should like it.” He created a YouTube channel and uploaded the video. In a few weeks, it had 300,000 views. He made and uploaded another video, based on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and it took off. After posting just two videos, he had 5,000 subscribers to his channel. Someone from YouTube reached out and, as Chandar remembers it, said, “You guys are doing some magic with your content.” So Chandar and several of his friends formed a company in Chennai, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from the bones of an IT business they’d run. They hired a few animators and started putting out a video a month.
Five years on, ChuChu TV is a fast-growing threat to traditional competitors, from Sesame Street to Disney to Nickelodeon. With all its decades of episodes, well-known characters, and worldwide brand recognition, Sesame Street has more than 5 billion views on YouTube. That’s impressive, but ChuChu has more than 19 billion. Sesame Street’s main feed has 4 million subscribers; the original ChuChu TV channel has 19 million—placing it among the top 25 most watched YouTube channels in the world, according to the social-media-tracking site Social Blade—and its subsidiary channels (primarily ChuChu TV Surprise Eggs Toys and ChuChu TV Español) have another 10 million.
According to ChuChu, its two largest markets are the United States and India, which together generate about one-third of its views. But each month, tens of millions of views also pour in from the U.K., Canada, Mexico, Australia, and all over Asia and Africa. Roughly 20 million times a day, a caretaker somewhere on Earth fires up YouTube and plays a ChuChu video. What began as a lark has grown into something very, very big, inflating the company’s ambitions. “We want to be the next Disney,” Chandar told me.
But whereas Disney has long mined cultures around the world for legends and myths—dropping them into consumerist, family-friendly American formats—ChuChu’s videos are a different kind of hybrid: The company ingests Anglo-American nursery rhymes and holidays, and produces new versions with subcontinental flair. The characters’ most prominent animal friend is a unicorn-elephant. Nursery rhymes become music videos, complete with Indian dances and iconography. Kids of all skin tones and hair types speak with an Indian accent.
Many observers respond to ChuChu’s unexpected success by implying that the company has somehow gamed the system. “Whenever we go to the U.S.,” Chandar told me, “people say, ‘You guys cracked the algorithm.’ But we didn’t do anything. The algorithm thing is a complete myth.”
ChuChu does not employ the weird keyword-stuffed titles used by lower-rent YouTube channels. The company’s titles are simple, sunny, consistent. Its theory of media is that good stuff wins, which is why its videos have won. “We know what our subscribers want, and we give it to them,” Chandar says. ChuChu says it adds roughly 40,000 subscribers a day.