Late Night Dispatch: YouTube saved late night, and late night changed YouTube

Jun 7 · 11 min read

[A quick note!! Hi! I used to write a newsletter, but I stopped because life got busy. Lately, I haven’t been able to sleep very much. When I can’t sleep, my mind obsesses over “hyperfixations,” a term those in the ADHD community will recognize. So, I blog. I blog because it helps me work out these ideas, and tires me out. I’m going to use this new newsletter, “Late Night Dispatch,” as just that — writing through insomnia. This won’t be a nightly, weekly, or monthly thing. It’ll just be for when I can’t sleep. If you like reading my tweets (lol) or my work (thank you, if you do!!), now I have this. Also note that since none of this is edited and is written in the early hours of the morning, it’ll be incoherent at times. But that’s what late night dispatches are.]

In February 2019, digital advertising businesses like Facebook and Google outpaced ad spending on traditional media like broadcast TV. It’s one of those boring facts that’s easy to ignore, but it was a striking reminder that in order to stay relevant, entertainment had to pivot to being more online. (Not Extremely Online, just more.)

No one knew this better than late night TV teams, who started to create with YouTube as a primary focus. YouTube could promise late night producers and talent an audience they weren’t getting on TV anymore and, with a little help from a tumultuous political period that made biting commentary more relevant than ever, helped to redefine late night TV as an important pop culture staple.

The growth of popularity of late night clips on YouTube — and the company’s drive to promote that type of content — had a monumental shift on YouTube culture as a whole. YouTube’s new destination as a home for late night comedy — a form of entertainment defined by personalities giving their take on day-to-day events in the world — helped push an already booming creator commentary community into being even more sensationalized to fight for views. Traditional late night was working on YouTube, and getting promoted; the commentary community would do for its millions of creators and young subscribers who care about YouTube culture what late night hosts were doing for the mainstream.

But it didn’t happen over night. The shift took years to happen, and is still a mess.

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A few considerable things happened leading up to the overarching YouTube pivot, but one of the biggest detriments late night TV faced was a new generation of cord cutters who rarely tuned in for appointment programming. There was already too much TV to catch up on, especially with streaming services entering the fold, and attention spans were mostly shot.

That’s where YouTube found its strengths.

Short clips ranging from five to 10 minutes found their way to YouTube, where they could be watched on the go and easily shared. As academic and journalist Cory Barker wrote on Vox in 2015, “the sheer quantity of late-night programming between 11 pm and 1:15 am makes it challenging for even the most die-hard fans to keep up with multiple shows in a given week.” Not just challenging. Impossible. But, YouTube allowed for the shows to be “watched the next morning over breakfast and dispersed via social media in piecemeal clip form.”

Late night isn’t new to YouTube. NBC partnered with YouTube in the company’s earliest days (2006), and clips from late night shows started going viral as early as 2007. By 2008, NBC Universal’s general counsel, Rick Cotton, told journalists that Google’s $1.6 billion acquisition of YouTube and general interest in the platform was because of clips like Saturday Night Live’s “Lazy Sunday” sketch. Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, made similar remarks about clips from The Daily Show being spread around YouTube.

This was an interesting time for YouTube. The company was attracting millions of people daily, many of whom were also uploading their own videos. The term “creator” hadn’t even entered the fold yet. People were mostly coming to YouTube to watch pirated content. As I wrote over at The Verge:

When Google bought YouTube in 2006 for $1.6 billion, the platform had to clean up its massive piracy problems. It was far too easy to watch anything and everything on YouTube, and movie studios, television conglomerates, and record labels were seething. Under Google, YouTube had to change.

So YouTube introduced Content ID, a tool to help prevent pirated content from spreading. As YouTube grew, however, networks realized they couldn’t compete with YouTube when it came to viewership numbers. Late night started thinking of how to use YouTube instead of being used by random people uploading their clips. Shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! played to YouTube’s viral strengths, picking up on trends like “twerk fails” or creating challenges like “hide your kids’ halloween candy” to create videos that gained traction online.

Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, host of The Tonight Show, became go-to examples of how late night began to change. They realized, between 2009 and 2014, that if they didn’t take control of their content online, others would take advantage. Kimmel told Recode in 2014 that “we made the “‘xxking Matt Damon’ and ‘fxxking Ben Affleck’ videos, and thousands of people posted them on YouTube,” adding that some “people got 30 million views.” Kimmel and his team realized they could start their own channel and direct people to them instead.

“We just started our YouTube channel for that reason alone,” Kimmel said. “And it’s grown — it’s got almost a billion views.”

But the networks weren’t too keen on it — and neither was Kimmel. He wanted to use YouTube as a way to control their content, but he didn’t want to cater to YouTube. Kimmel told Recode that they were focused on creating a television show first and foremost for that audience. If the joke found its way to an online audience, splendid, but that wasn’t the goal. And for one very good reason.

“The fact of the matter is, the amount of money we make from selling commercials on television, is 100 times as much from what we make from people watching our YouTube videos,” Kimmel said. “And until those things even out somewhat, we’re going to be focused on television.”

Things change.

Photo from YouTube creator Joinen’s video

A changing period

In 2015, two crucial updates occurred: YouTube introduced autoplay functionality alongside its early recommendation algorithm, and the platform reached more 18–49 year olds than any cable network.

YouTube had more people coming to its site than ever before, and was working on product designs to keep them there longer. Forever if possible. Creators were boasting millions of subscribers. It went from a platform to a beating heart — a living organism. YouTube creators were attracting younger audiences with weird, offbeat comedy, vlogging, and DIY-type content that was different from anything on television. People were eating it up. YouTube loved promoting it. Most importantly, advertisers were in.

“Internet ad revenue in the United States, which is growing quickly, reached about $60 billion in 2015,” according to a New York Times report. TV ad revenue was sitting at $66 billion.

It’s often described as one of YouTube’s most vibrant years. Creators were intertwining with traditional Hollywood; YouTube was gearing up to launch its own premium content plan (YouTube Red); and “visitors to YouTube’s homepage are now up over three times year-over-year,” YouTube’s former chief business office, Omid Kordestani, reported.

Advertisers had discovered that not only were YouTube creators a viable business opportunity — they were the future. This left networks who were rapidly losing out to YouTube’s homegrown talent with two options. Either invest in those very creators and create a subsidiary business on YouTube or cater its talent to YouTube as their own form of creators. The former meant buying up the competition; the latter meant entering into the game alongside it.

Companies like Disney went with the former. The company bought Maker Studios (a multi channel network that acted as a quasi talent agency for independent YouTube personalities, including Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg) in 2014 for $675 million. At the time, it seemed like an obvious way into a burgeoning market. Networks like ABC, NBC, and CBS went with the former. Their late night talk show hosts became creators.

Fallon launched his channel’s welcome trailer— a staple of YouTube creator culture — in January 2015, and seemed to pay more attention to his channel than ever before. Nine months later, NBC and YouTube entered into an agreement that would allow pre-roll ads to run before Fallon’s videos. Same with ABC and Kimmel. Both NBC and ABC were about to get paid. The deals signified a major moment for network television, taking the final leap into an online space not owned by the corporation, but an even bigger move for Fallon, Kimmel and late night in general. They were now officially a part of YouTube culture.

“We have been trying to figure something out for quite some time,” said Linda Yaccarino, NBCUniversal’s president of advertising sales at the time. “It’s the next logical step and makes sense for YouTube to be our next distribution partner.”

Late night needed YouTube, but YouTube also needed late night. More attention on the homepage led to new product features, including a Trending tab. Late night clips often appeared alongside sports highlight reels, music videos, movie trailers, and creator videos. Late night was going to help make YouTube seem more official to big advertisers, Hollywood talent, and other networks or studios — all areas the company wanted to grow.

Creators took note, which is not to imply YouTube didn’t have its own comedic commentary community already. It did. A vibrant one. As the culture grew, people started to comment on trends they were seeing and did it in a uniquely funny way. Shane Dawson, one of YouTube’s most successful creators, told Quartz in 2015, “To be successful you’ve got to have something interesting to say.” If YouTubers learned to do anything, it’s that — and they pulled from traditional late night comedy to do it. Commentary started examining day-to-day news and trends in the community, and offering lengthy monologue breakdowns with a form of biting commentary that was similar in many ways to traditional late night.

At the end of the day, they were sitting down, making jokes, and talking into a camera about something people wanted to know more about versus standing and delivering a monologue

Then things changed again. YouTube as a company was about to enter a war with its creators, media critics, and itself, but there were a few growing facets of YouTube culture the company could promote. At the top of that list were musicians and late night shows.

Late night was about to become more prominent than it had in more than a decade — and part of it seemed to do with YouTube protecting itself.

Shifting Tides

Just over two years ago, YouTube entered into one of its worst periods. It still hasn’t ever really gotten out of that place.

Here’s a brief, incomplete rundown of what happened between then and now:

  • A video from YouTube’s biggest creator, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg contained anti-Semitic imagery
  • Terrorist content was flourishing
  • Disturbing children’s content was being shared
  • Bad actors were gaming YouTube’s recommendation algorithm to promote harmful content
  • Logan Paul uploaded a video of a dead man’s body, facing global criticism
  • Misinformation was spreading
  • Radicalization was being documented
  • Predators were showing up in comments of videos that featured kids

There are more. YouTube was facing boycott threats from advertisers. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was asked about it by congress. It wasn’t a good time. The company needed a life preserver. The company couldn’t rely on its creators as much, so it pivoted to safe content. Sports highlights, music videos, trailers, and late night. They worked with white listed partners who brought in their own advertisements, clearing YouTube of the responsibility.

“YouTube is inevitably heading towards being like television, but they never told their creators this,” Jamie Cohen, a professor of new media at Molloy College, toldUSA Today in 2018.

The Trending tab became dominated by late night clips, and the home page was plastered with thumbnails starring different hosts. YouTube wanted late night to become a new face for the platform — a move that left creators angry. Late night was getting all the promotion and attention from the company, who boasted about the success of show clips during public events. As Vulture noted earlier this year:

But like some terrible cyberpunk movie, the online second life is becoming more important than the broadcasted first life. Entire chunks of late night are digital-exclusive today, and late-night hosts live and die by their branding and ability to surf internet trends.

Late night always had one major edge over homegrown YouTube content — traditional celebrities. People will always want to watch a host interview a major celebrity. Most YouTube creators don’t have access to a constant lineup of celebrities every night to get people’s attention. In order to compete, some of their content became more sensationalized. They could get away with saying things that traditional television and even radio hosts couldn’t. YouTube seemed to be overly lenient, seemingly not even enforcing its policies, which helped lead commentary channels create their own form of late night-style shows.

Although these were becoming increasingly popular amongst YouTube fans, they weren’t as easy for YouTube to promote. Creators still weren’t household names like Kimmel or Fallon, and the content seemed to veer into “edgy” territory. As Polygon noted, “Creators weren’t erased, but YouTube could no longer promise advertisers safety based on the DIY community that drew brands to the platform in the first place.”

Ironically, late night was pivoting to YouTube while YouTube was “trying to position itself as being more like television,” as the Los Angeles Times reported. Creators claimed to be having a more difficult time trying to make money (YouTube kind of says otherwise), but traditional entertainment — especially late night — was thriving.

“YouTube has helped to redefine the way people watch late-night TV, and they’ve been supporting us since day one,” Fallon told Fast Company in February after his channel crossed 2.6 billion views.

So…

YouTube is changing.

It has for a while, but questions about bullying on the platform and harassment has led YouTube to re-examine its policies. The company wants late night-style content on the platform. It seems to want commentators. An entire ecosystem is thriving. YouTube doesn’t want to take that away, but it’s clear from response to recent events surrounding conservative pundit Steven Crowder and Vox journalist Carlos Maza that things need to change.

Comedy and commentary are too important for YouTube to turn away from, and the company doesn’t want to anyway. It’s only going to get bigger, and messier, before change starts to happen. YouTube creators will adapt — they always have — and a new form of their late night-style content will emerge.

On the other side, networks like NBC are pulling straight from YouTube. Lilly Singh, one of the most popular YouTube creators who’s straddled the line between YouTube and Hollywood for years, is getting her own late night show on NBC. It makes sense. Singh already creates with YouTube in mind. She has a dedicated fanbase. NBC can sell ads and reach an audience they might not be able to with a more traditional comedian.

The worlds are merging; YouTube and network television brought together by this specific type of content that is rapidly shifting. As Vulture noted:

“This is YouTube. But it’s also late night.”

Julia Alexander

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Nonsense thoughts about technology and, like, life, I guess.

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