Like many people, I stopped paying for cable or satellite TV years ago, and gave up on free over-the-air broadcasts due to their lack of interesting content. This means that I now rely on a combination of paid streaming services (Netflix and Amazon Prime) and free online content (YouTube). Of these, YouTube is the most analogous to the broadcast television I grew up with. Content is uploaded on “channels” by individual content creators, with new “episodes” being uploaded according to their own production calendars, and revenue is generated through the placement of ads within that content, just like adverts (commercials to Americans) on TV.
YouTube has evolved rapidly since its formation just around 15 years ago. In the beginning, it was mostly short cellphone-filmed clips of low quality, far too many of which featured cats doing cute things. It was sort of the online descendent of TV shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” In those days I used YouTube almost exclusively as a source for music. But then creators of original content began realizing that by drawing viewers to their channels they could earn significant amounts of money simply by posting content that received a lot of views. “Viral videos” created YouTube stars, who suddenly found their videos receiving millions of views, which generated thousands of dollars in ad revenue. The potential to earn revenue has led to the creation of an entirely new occupation, the professional YouTuber.
Of the channels I watch regularly and subscribe to, by far my most-watched are those who simply share their passion with viewers in a less blatantly commercialized way. That is, their videos aren’t usually paid endorsements for products they receive free of charge in exchange for shamelessly shilling them to their viewers. My viewing tastes reflect my own interests, and thus I end up watching a lot of content related to cars (mostly Jeeps and Land Rovers), building or repairing things, and farming.
Some channels I watch are a combination of the hobbyist and hawker, with most videos being related to the hobby, but once a week or so they will post an obvious paid endorsement video featuring some product a manufacturer has sent them for free in exchange for featuring it in their videos. I understand this, and am okay with it. Bills must be paid, and I’d probably be tempted to make that devil’s bargain if I were in their shoes (free stuff is free stuff). But I rarely watch those paid endorsement videos. Just like I never sat through those 30-minute paid infomercials on broadcast TV. (It’s the original Sham-Wow!) Because why on earth would I? I’ve never been that bored in my life.
YouTubers have complained a lot in recent years about the fairness or unfairness of YouTube’s monetization policy. Many of them have turned to subscription services like Patreon to generate revenue, or solicit funds directly through PayPal or other services. My general take on this is not a sympathetic one. No one ever seriously considered that developing YouTube content would become a paying profession when the platform was developed. Producers of broadcast TV shows don’t shill for funding from their viewers (except for PBS, but that’s another story). If the ad revenue isn’t enough, then maybe you should consider another career. Turning your hobby into a lucrative career should be the exception rather than the rule. But I suspect that ego has a large role to play in this as well. Once a channel begins to generate a lot of views the attention-seeking monster begins to grow and content creators’ heads begin to swell with pride. You take your fifteen minutes of fame wherever you can get it, I guess.
Recently, I began watching content from the creator of a channel about 4×4 overland adventure travel. His videos are highly-polished, slickly edited, and feature beautiful high-definition video. He narrates them in a Very Serious British Person voice aping Sir David Attenborough (an affected accent he has surely carefully cultivated to support his “brand”). But after watching a handful of his videos, I began to notice that he is ruthlessly shameless in his approach to maximizing revenue. That is, a typical 20 or 30-minute video will feature approximately 5 minutes of interesting content and the remainder is self-important bloviation in his Very Important British Person voice. Filler is important, because to maximize revenue under YouTube’s monetization algorithm a video should be in the sweet spot of 15-30 minutes in length. These videos almost always feature a cliff-hanger ending, and always feature a click-bait title, one of the most annoying things ever created. He specializes in stretching content that could make a single interesting 30 or 45-minute video into a 15 or 20-video series, each chock full of ads to maximize his revenue. This cynical approach has soured me to his channel, but it is his attitude toward his viewers which caused me to unsubscribe and tell YouTube’s robotic overlords, “do not recommend this channel to me again.”
In the comment section of one of his recent videos he replied to a politely critical remark with, “I give you free stuff and you have an issue on how I raise funding to give you that free stuff. Its fucking NUTS!” This remark was the final straw for my viewership. Because his approach seems to be that you can either pay him directly for producing his content and not be critical (which he strongly encourages through his Patreon account), or shut up and watch “for free” and also not be critical. But whether you pay him directly out of pocket or indirectly though your views, just don’t be critical. He believes that he’s doing you a favor by making his videos and that you should appreciate receiving his “free stuff” and ignore the fact that he sees you merely in terms of views, likes, and subscriptions, which translate into dollars for him. With this overinflated God-complex, he feels that his “art” is bettering the world and he should be lauded with praise (but mostly money) for creating it.
The thing YouTubers such as Mr. Wannabe Attenborough don’t understand is that our viewership isn’t free. We may not be paying to subscribe to YouTube, but we are certainly investing our time by watching his product, and time is money, as we all know. If TV show creators came with that same attitude, their shows would be cancelled in short order due to low ratings. By watching your video, I’m exchanging my time for ad revenue going into your pocket. It’s a two-way exchange. Respect your viewers and they will respect you. Treat us as cash cows to be exploited for money and we will turn you off. Simple.
Another interesting trend emerging among full-time YouTubers is the increasing fictionalization of their content, again as a cynical income-generating ploy. Their videos may not be completely scripted fiction, but are increasingly akin to “reality TV” in which the “reality” they edit becomes more and more distant from reality. One example is a farming channel I’ve watched for quite some time. It has become very obvious now that this “farmer” is actually a full-time YouTube video creator whose “farm” happens to provide a convenient set for his videos. Little, if any, actual farming occurs on his “farm”, yet four or five 30-minute videos (again, the sweet spot for ad revenue) are cranked out each week. An actual farmer has little or no time to shoot, edit and upload that much video content, and it’s clear that the cows he pretends to tend are simply props for his staged farming operation, and are probably actually cared for by off-screen hired hands, who are never mentioned or shown. The reason for this is very simple, he makes significantly more money from YouTube than he ever would from farming. Plus, the farm comes with the added benefit of receiving state and federal grants and subsidies (farmer welfare) and an enormous tax write-off for the losses and depreciation it incurs.
This trend saddens me, because I’m sure this guy started off with good intentions of sharing his passion for farming with others. Yet over time he’s become a YouTube-based reality TV star whose drama takes place against the backdrop of a stage-managed farm. I have seen the same thing happen with car-related content, when mechanics stop actually fixing or building cars and just look for weekly dramatic content to create endless “will it start?” videos. The dumbing down of content is spiraling out of control, and I’m left wondering if we will soon be watching “Ouch, My Balls” videos as predicted by the prescient Mike Judge film Idiocracy.
Online content is a fast-evolving arena. YouTube has changed dramatically in just a few years. Netflix has gone from providing streaming sources for movies produced by traditional studios to a major studio and TV network in itself, producing enormous volumes of its own original content, a lot of which is truly garbage (Sexy Beasts, anyone?). It remains to be seen where this is all heading. But one thing is for certain, if you take your viewers for granted you can be certain that you will find yourself devoid of viewers very quickly regardless of platform. There’s simply too much content out there to tolerate YouTube divas and rubbish content.