Just for laughs, Dylan Hart and a college friend posted a video on YouTube in 2007 about charging an iPod using an onion and a bottle of Gatorade.
More than 9 million views later, that video marks the start of YouTube becoming Hart's meal ticket, the home of his popular "Household Hacker" videos that are often a cross between "Mr. Wizard" and "Jackass: The Movie." It's a winning formula: Household Hacker has more than 1.1 million subscribers to its channel on YouTube.
It's also a winning formula for YouTube. Household Hacker is one of more than 20,000 YouTube "partners" -- the number doubled over the past year -- whose videos attract an audience large enough to generate significant advertising dollars. Although Household Hacker may sound like a more polished version of the amateur videos that made YouTube a cultural phenomenon, it and other YouTube stalwarts are also a key piece of Google's plans to transform the video platform it bought for $1.65 billion in 2006 from a money pit into a cash cow, making it into more of an entertainment destination like a TV network.
"We're very excited in terms of the growth and the talent that's emerging," said Tom Pickett, director of content operations at YouTube. "In the U.S., in the last year or two, we started hitting thresholds where people started making serious money, and that has caused a lot more attention to be paid to a lot of our top partners."
Fans of Household Hacker connect each week to see everything from magnets made from neodymium -- a rare earth element -- that defy gravity, to game reviews by Hart's co-founder, to hidden-camera pranks like the shampoo-bottle ketchup bomb, powered by the chemical reaction between vinegar and baking soda, Hart planted in his unsuspecting brother's shower stall.
"We have a very high level production-wise, but we're not trying to be the Discovery Channel," said Hart, 28, a Californian who took the plunge into becoming a full-time YouTube producer after he got laid off from a job as a graphic designer for a large Silicon Valley company in 2009.
Household Hacker is among hundreds of YouTube partners that receive more than $100,000 a year in ad revenue from YouTube, with the most popular personalities now cashing checks of more than $1 million a year, according to YouTube.
Fans can subscribe to their favorite YouTube channels, where they can exchange comments and watch the latest video. Channels like 2 million-subscriber Mystery Guitar Man, a musical performance artist whose identity is hidden by wraparound sunglasses, and fast-growing Canadian newcomer Epic Meal Time, which turns huge quantities of red meat into a comedy prop for 1.4 million subscribers, now feature ads for everything from Miracle Whip to iTunes to Nordstrom. Mystery Guitar Man, whose offscreen identity is Joe Penna, has even done commercials for Coke and McDonald's.
YouTube's popularity leader is Ray William Johnson, who has 4.4 million subscribers and is among the top 10 most-followed people on the new Google+ social network. He produces a raunchy review of the week's top YouTube videos that couldn't run on TV, but his YouTube sponsors include oil giant ConocoPhillips and 5-hour Energy drinks.
YouTube says top partners such as Mystery Guitar Man attract audiences of 250,000 to 500,000 individual viewers a day. That compares with 2010 Nielsen data that shows MTV with 979,000 daily prime-time viewers, or the NFL Network's 258,000 viewers.
By sharing ad revenue with independent partners -- many have evolved into small professional production companies of a dozen people or more -- YouTube helps boost content quality, which attracts more viewers, which in turn produces more ad revenue, said Jon Gibs, senior vice president of media analytics for the Nielsen Co. For most big advertising brands, YouTube remains a relatively small "experimental" part of their ad budget, he said.
"The real advantage to YouTube is, by having this kind of content, they wash away a little of the image of consumer-generated content as being a low-quality video experience," Gibs said.
YouTube's video viewers averaged 2 hours, 37 minutes per month on YouTube during June, according to Nielsen. That is a tiny fraction of the time people spend watching TV, but Gibs said the partner program reflects YouTube's efforts to transform itself into a TV-like entertainment destination.