Barbie and KenLet’s say you’re Mattel, guardian of many of the world’s pop culture icons like, say, the 51 year-old multi-billion-dollar franchise that is Barbie. Generations of young girls (and boys) grew up clamoring for the latest Barbie and Ken dolls to play with—(or cut off their hair). But now a new generation of children are growing up with parents of the internet generation, complete with countless other sorts of games and diversions that Barbie and friends didn’t have to compete with a few decades back.

The challenge for Mattel then, is how do you keep the Barbie brand relevant? And, in this case, how do you reintroduce her somewhat forgotten counterpart Ken into the mix?

We caught wind of this series back in Sepetember when the Genuine Ken microsite first went up. Even then it was obvious that something big was afoot with a casting call for would-be contestants on a new 8-episode online reality show, Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend. The kicker, each episode is a full 22-minutes—the same length as a half-hour TV show.

To be sure, a competition reality show with 20-something bachelors isn’t exactly kids fare. So just who is this series aimed at? “The series is targeted to grown-up girls and boys,” Mattel’s Michelle Chidoni informs us. “The Barbie brand spans over three generations – consumers who had an infinity for the brand as children still love the brand today – this series gives us a way to re-connect an older audience with the Barbie brand.”

Whitney PortTo host the show, the producers tapped rising fashion icon, and reality star, Whitney Port who ha been building her own Whitney Eve clothing line in between seasons of MTV’s The City.

Port also appears in another web series, Hollywood is Like High School with Money, playing herself in an episode that came out last month.

The format is fairly familiar as these elimination series go, with each episode setting up variuous challenges for the would-be Kens like surfing competition, talent show and of course a fashion show. The tagline being that they are looking for “the ultimate boyfriend for every occasion.” Each episode will feature a different celebrity guest judge, which we’re hearing from some YouTube creators that a few have been tapped to appear.

Hudsun Media created the concept and is producing the series, with Hudsun execs Michael Rourke and Max Benator executive producing along with Real Chance of Love producer Lauren Stevens.

Who Needs TV Networks?

The real story here is the end-around the brand is playing here, bypassing a large spend on traditional TV with a non-trivial spend sent right to an online network (Hulu) for an original web series. Hulu and other online networks like YouTube have proven they have the scale of audience to deliver on what the brand wants to reach. So why bother with bloated TV budgets? The significance of this isn’t lost on Hudsun Media’s CEO Michael Rourke.

“What we are doing with Mattel and Genuine Ken is a complete game changer, ” said Rourke. We have created a wildly compelling, network-quality reality show that, for the first time, can be distributed directly to the viewer in a non-traditional but very effective way.”

All those charts that get marched out in board meetings about how ad spending for online video is shooting up, have projects like this to thank for such lofty forecasts. With some $70 billion spent by brands on Television, the measly $1.4 billion or so in online video seems marginal, but the shift is on.

As for the scale of this project in terms of actual dollars, they wouldn’t disclose, other than that it’s “a singificant investment.” Most indications seem to hint that this one is cracking over the million dollar mark. For Mattel this is their largest push in to web series to date, having lightly sponsored Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party series back in 2008.

The series starts shooting early next month and isn’t set for release until January 18, 2011. So in the meantime, we leave you with a little SNL parody from our favorite Barbie of all, Kristen Wiig: