Why YouTube is the true successor to TV
The numbers don't lie
In those halcyon days before the internet, when I was still young, I would come home from school and almost immediately turn on the TV. It didn't really matter what was on — some random Disney cartoon, Jerry Springer, Saved by the Bell. All I wanted was some noise and a glow coming out of a screen.
Perhaps it makes sense then that I still sit in front of a screen all day. But instead of traditional TV, it's YouTube that I turn to for mindless entertainment now. There, an endless array of videos about food, tech, comedy, cars, and any number of other topics, occupy my time.
I'm not alone. This week, Google parent company Alphabet announced its annual financial results, and for the first time broke out revenue for YouTube. The video site pulled in a hefty $15 billion in ad revenue, and now boasts about 2 billion monthly active users. Clearly I am not the only one watching Bon Appetit videos or snippets of dogs meeting babies.
That YouTube makes so much money isn't exactly surprising, particularly with so many users. In fact, what is perhaps unexpected to those of us raised on TV is that Instagram makes about as much money as YouTube, despite only having half the users (thank the targeting and direct purchasing on the latter platform).
But as on-demand streaming video services proliferate on a seeming weekly basis, I'd argue that it's YouTube that has become the true successor to TV. Not only does it occupy the same sort of cultural function, it is taking in huge ad dollars, too.
After all, when what you want is mindless content or something to just relax and watch, YouTube is just better. For all the plethora of stuff on Netflix, Disney+, or any other number of services, what YouTube does best is quick, snackable content. Some of it is perfectly watchable fluff, while lots of content is also educational; the site features a basically limitless array of stuff, from travel videos to sewing tutorials to history lessons. Crucially, rather than the endless options on Netflix and its dubious recommendations, YouTube tends to point you to things you actually want to watch. Instead of the tyranny of choice, you get the relief of "up next."
But that same mix of recommendations and short content means that YouTube is also the ideal place to follow particular topics. If you are obsessed with DIY woodworking or cast iron pans or fixing cars, YouTube is the place to go. That same culture of YouTube has also turned it into a place of "relatable" stars, where people like Emma Chamberlain or Philip DeFranco amass millions of followers through sheer force of personality. YouTube is sticky because it gives you reasons to keep coming back, just like TV.
For all its newness, YouTube thus occupies the spot in our lives that TV once did: the thing you turn to when you want to veg out, or peer into others' lives, or learn something new. More than that, though, YouTube is far more of-the-moment than other ways to watch video. Everything from late-night talk shows to reactions to the news to the constant stream of daily content makes YouTube much more immediate than the shows and movies that populate other platforms. Add to that a large selection of live content, including news, and YouTube's "now-ness" becomes its most compelling feature. You open YouTube not just to be entertained or informed but, much more importantly, to be plugged into the contemporary.
That's also why more and more advertising dollars are moving to YouTube. As analyst Benedict Evans pointed out in a recent presentation, YouTube has recently overtaken Netflix for daily time spent consuming video among teens. That makes sense: YouTube's faster, more current, personality-driven culture seems designed to appeal to the young. But it also means that as the current generation of teens grows up, they may continue to spend significant amounts of time on YouTube instead of watching TV. After all, in that same chart by Evans, pay TV's share of teen viewers was about a quarter of that for Netflix and YouTube. The next generation will not be watching linear TV.
YouTube is thus poised for even more growth and attention. And unlike the services it competes with for eyeballs, it has become extremely large without an enormous content budget. Compare that to Netflix, which expects to spend about $14 billion on producing its own shows this year alone.
That isn't to say YouTube isn't without its problems. Researcher Becca Lewis has compellingly argued that YouTube is a machine for radicalization, particularly among the celebrity culture of the far right. Like Facebook and Twitter, YouTube faces similar problems of balancing its enormous earnings and cultural influence with its clearly deleterious effects.
But when you get home from a long day and want to just chill, YouTube still seems like the best option. You can learn, you can laugh, you can turn your brain off. And doesn't that make it the purest, most faithful successor to that old standby, TV?
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