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.


18 thoughts on “The ‘You’ in YouTube is Following the ‘M’ from MTV into Irrelevance”

  1. You mention that the YouTube network supplies the viewing audience in exchange for a revenue split, but do MCNs actually do anything to help distribution? I run a mid-size animation channel and have spoken to a number of networks, but rarely have I received a direct answer about any kind of promotional assistance.

    1. An MCN is essentially a cable network by another name. They aggregate content from individual creators and anyone subscribed to the MCN will see it in their feed when they log into YouTube.

      I’m not privy to any individual MCN terms, so I cannot comment on how they promote new content, but suffice to say the largest ones have enough subscribers to create a significant amount of social sharing.

      1. Using Machinima as an example, their About Us page says they’ve got 30,000+ partners. The network benefits from boasting their collective stats (151m views monthly, etc.) but I think the individual partner is at a loss. What use is an MCNs feed if you’re competing against 30,000 other partners for attention? It may be more exclusive exposure than YouTube-at-large, but even still I wouldn’t think it would be a very effective promotional boost. A cable network can’t have that many channels since it pays to produce its content, but because an MCN acquires all of their content essentially for free, there’s no limit to stat-boosting. In the end though, I think it’s self-defeating. MCNs have rapidly lost favor even among YouTubers. I will be curious to see how things play out.

        Very interesting relating this to MTV though. Thanks as always for your articles!

        1. Thanks for the kind words! 😀

          Great points; you pretty much hit the nail on the head. If you look closely, you discover that creators trade half of their ad revenues and some control but retain 100% of the risk and cost of producing the content. Essentially MCN’s engage in a relatively risk-free enterprise while skimming revenues straight off the top.

          The losers are the viewers who get poorer content, and the creators who get locked into something they can’t get out of.

        2. I was reading about a week ago from Defy Media (the MCN who owns Honest Trailers) and they said they “cross-promote” so maybe that’s what they do now? Have someone on a more popular channel appear on your show?

  2. Here’s another angle to consider:

    Lots of artist and animators supplement their YouTube channels with other types of videos, like tutorials, screencasting, or reviews. The bulk of my YouTube traffic (and thus ad revenue) comes from Google searches for art and animation tutorials. YouTube also has had some of my stuff as “Featured Videos” in the sidebar, which has increased the ad revenue over the years. My most popular video tutorial series is a number of years old, but it’s still viewed regularly because the instructional content remains relevant.

    Last year I got an invitation to join an animation-based MCN. While I do produce animation, and would appreciate the extra viewers that I could get through the MCN promotions, there’s a huge dealbreaker: the MCN takes half the ad revenue for ALL VIDEOS on my channel. Even older ones, even non-animation videos. Even if the viewers arrived via a Google search, a Twitter/Tumblr reblog, a YouTube Featured Video ad…

    Oddly, the MCN model punishes creators who are somewhere in the middle of the popularity distribution. If you’re suffering with sub-100 view counts, the promotional power of an MCN can bring you audiences bigger than what you might otherwise earn. If you’re a YouTube superstar, you don’t need the MCN, obviously. However, if you’re medium-popular through other social media promotion or Google search results, the MCN can be parasitic on your existing revenue. This is particularly true for the artists and animators who have to diversify our video content with tutorials, screencasting, product/software reviews, etc.

  3. Really interesting article, it definitely makes me reconsider trying to start a YouTube channel as a source of revenue. Do you think there are any alternatives to YouTube? Could something like Vimeo or DailyMotion be another platform for creators to generate an income?

    1. I think YouTube is still the major player in online video, but when it comes to making an income, crowdfunding sites like Patreon are starting to offer an alternative route for those who can offer an exclusive experience to patrons.

      1. Not to be pushy, but Patreon has it’s limits too, when I was researching them I found stuff like: according to their site they recommend that you do videos at least on a monthly basis, also they suggest that you should be able to put out content even if you don’t get any donations (I could be wrong on the location, but I found it in the “How It Works” section), and to do anything (animation-wise) that isn’t very limited animation, is a no-go. It would be cool if there was another alternative to Patreon AND the MCNs.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. I have not yet posted content on Youtube and was considering it. I will take the organic route rather than signing away my rights “to perpetuity”. You can connect with me on Linkedin or twitter @sistermedia

  5. Hey, I was forwarded this article from a friend after we had a discussion about YouTube becoming more of an overbearing multi-channel network than a video sharing platform.

    I’m I huge music video fan and started a music video website called Music Meets Video. We host music video competitions. I don’t mean to spam but here’s a link to the site for reference:

    I think in the near future we will begin to see more offshoot niche genre site like ours begin to pop up around the web. We are small scale online channels on a with hyper-focused content that pertains directly to a viewer’s interests. Members feel like they are a part of a community and can tune in without the distracted viewing experience YouTube provides.

    YouTube can aggregate all they want but they aren’t creators. As video hosting and broadband becomes faster, I expect YouTube will have a good deal of mom and pop competition on their hands.

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