The ‘You’ in YouTube is Following the ‘M’ from MTV into Irrelevance
Although the company hasn’t got as far as MTV when they chopped-off the ‘Music Television’ part of their identity, YouTube is nonetheless following them down the same beaten path. Anyone can still post content for free of course, but it is everything that surrounds that tenant of the service that has changed, and not necessarily for the better.
Built on the premise of bringing streaming video to the masses, YouTube grew to become a juggernaut that is sweeping almost everything in its path when it comes to non-traditional video media. However, despite being built on the premise of ‘You’, the service is following the lead of MTV in deserting the part of its name that defined what it is.
I say all of the following from the viewpoint of a prospective creator, and in thinking about the many tasks to be completed and decisions to be made in the coming months, it dawned on me that you simply cannot just throw up a video as you did in the old days. It’s not that the act has become a process, but rather that process stacks the cards against the very individual in the company’s name.
In some ways, the service had to mature, but given how revolutionary the company was in the beginning, it’s quite surprising to see them rely on decidedly un-revolutionary concepts to develop. Creating ‘channels’, in-video advertising, even hiring ex-TV people are all examples. The reason for all of this is not-coincidentally, related to the same reason that MTV shifted away from music videos: time.
Yes, MTV realised not too long after they launched that viewers were unlikely to hang around from video to video. What the channel lacked was content that would hold viewer’s attention long enough for advertisers to get their money’s worth (read: longer than the ~3-minutes of their favoruite music video.) What resulted was a gradual increase in non-musical content that eventually ended up with the channel broadcasting no musical content whatsoever and spurring the change to the imperious logo.
YouTube is in an almost-identical boat. In early years, the ability of the service to stream content was related to internet connection speeds. Ergo, videos were short and sweet. Combined with the ‘sit-up’ nature of online viewing, long-form content was therefore avoided by the majority of producers. Such realities have caused YouTube to encounter the exact same problem as MTV 30 years before; how to get viewers to hang around for more than 5-10 minutes at a time.
Allowing users to subscribe to other users was a start; enabling them to acquire a repertoire of content sources meant they could have a stable supply of new content, and therefore had a reason to come back to the site regularly; yay! Except that the concept slowly warped to become the mutli-channel network model that we have today.
The MCN model is efficient at what it does; splitting revenues between creators and the ‘network’ who supplies the viewing audience. Except that they now dominate the YouTube ecosystem and offer a shortcut for any creator to that root of all evil: money.
Not to downplay the role of money in all of this, but for creators, the quickest and easiest way to earn revenue is by displaying ads (again, not coincidentally via Google’s systems). Unfortunately the performance of such ads are deeply dependent on the number of eyeballs who see them, and since MCNs hoover up a sizeable portion of YouTube’s audience, the advantages they offer can be hard to ignore. I’m sure you’ve watched a video with a ridiculously low number of views force ads upon you in some way shape or form. It’s impossible for them not to have that aura of desperation about them, isn’t it? Especially when it is obvious that they have not considered any alternative methods of making money.
In effect, the allure of advertising dollars is terribly hard to turn down, and in doing so, creators trade money for independence. More than one MCN has been called out for some pretty restrictive contractual terms that would not have looked out of place in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. All told, as slim an opportunity as it was to succeed on YouTube before, it has become ever slimmer in the MCN era; if you go it alone.
Again I note all of this as a prospective creator. A while back, there was a degree of concern raised when YouTube made it known that creators would be rewarded for producing content that was more watched, and created more often. Many animators complained that their chosen medium cannot be created as quickly as live-action and the company’s decision puts them at a disadvantage.
The fun element of YouTube is gone. It’s no longer about the content, or the creator, but about chasing eyeballs and the advertising dollars that follow. The way to succeed is not to create great or innovative content, it’s to create content that will attract the most viewers, and to sign up to an MCN that can help you reach them.
So I look at all of this with an eye to my own strategy. The traditional route of creating, producing, and posting on my own is attractive, but starting from scratch is a very, very tough choice, and the payoff won’t be achieved for a significant length of time. The alternative is to partner with an MCN, have them distribute my content in return for displaying ads and splitting the revenue with me. Once another party becomes involved, I lose a degree of control (and depending on the MCN, the amount can be a little, or a lot.)
Yet giving up control of what you create runs counter to why YouTube was established in the first place. It was your content, you were in control! The company we find ourselves with today is a service where there is a ‘You’ in the name and the videos, but a ‘Them’ in the large networks that run the show, steer the boat, and are not afraid to dictate terms that heavily favour themselves.
It’s unfortunate to say, but while many mourned the transition of ‘MTV: Music Television’ to the meaningless ‘MTV’, the same shenanigans are happening right under our nose with YouTube. It’s also disappointing that no-one has seen fit to comment on the transition of the service from an innovative platform for new content and ideas, to a stilted popularity contest run by networks whose only interest is self-preservation.