Why your favorite YouTube channels look more and more like cable TV

Simon Owens
May 20, 2019 · 5 min read
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Hot Ones. Source: YouTube

Peruse through the early videos of the most popular YouTube channels and you’ll find an eclectic mix of formats and subject matter, with nearly all the videos clocking in at less than six minutes. Take BuzzFeed’s flagship YouTube channel as an example. Some of its initial videos, published six years ago, include a two-minute compilation of old stock photos; a one minute, 43 second narrated roundup of uplifting images; and a two-and-a-half minute look at how animals see the world.

Flash forward to today, and much of the output from those same YouTube channels consists of videos with episodic, repeatable formats. These videos often feature the same hosts, music, editing style, and taglines across the entire series. Nearly all require at least 10 minutes of watch time to complete. Here’s a random sampling:

  • BuzzFeed’s Worth It: A series, now in its fourth season, that follows around two hosts, Andrew and Steven, who travel the globe and try out variations of the same food and services at vastly different price points. Each video averages around 12 minutes.
  • Complex’s Hot Ones: A series of 26-minute videos in which celebrities answer interview questions while attempting to eat incredibly spicy hot wings.
  • Vox’s Borders: A series, now in its third season, in which a correspondent takes you around the world to explain the politics, cultures, and economics of foreign countries. Most videos are between eight and 11 minutes.
  • Wired’s Almost Impossible: A series of 15-minute videos about human athletes’ physical limits.

Watch any of these series, and it quickly becomes apparent that they could easily exist on many of the reality-based cable channels you flip through when you’re browsing linear TV. While shorter, standalone videos still go viral all the time, publishers have shifted almost all of their money and resources into producing this kind of episodic content.

Why? There are a few reasons. The first has to do with incentives YouTube has put in place. For instance, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which drives much of the viewing on the platform, is increasingly weighted toward longer videos. In 2018, the Pew Research Center conducted a study where its researchers clicked on thousands of YouTube’s recommended videos and recorded the length and view count of each video. “The videos selected in the first step of these random walks averaged 9 minutes, 31 seconds in length,” wrote the researchers. “The first recommended video tied to this initial choice ran, on average, nearly three minutes longer. By the fifth and final step in these walks, the site recommended videos that averaged nearly 15 minutes in length.”

Longer videos also allow for publishers to generate more income per video. YouTube now provides multiple midroll ad breaks, and so the longer the video, the more ad breaks that can be included. The strategy of posting longer videos became increasingly important as YouTube placed more restrictions on which videos can contain ads. These policies were rolled out starting in 2017 after news outlets reported that ads were appearing next to video content that brands would consider unsavory. With a higher likelihood that a video will be demonetized, publishers have to squeeze even more money out of the videos that do pass YouTube’s algorithmic filters.

Why has YouTube introduced incentives that result in more TV-like content? Probably because it’s trying to drive more viewing on TV-connected platforms like Roku and Amazon Fire. In fact, YouTube executives consistently tout the fact that connected-TV viewing is its fastest growing segment, expanding from 150 million hours a day of watch time in 2018 to over 250 million today. YouTube has made a strong push to lure traditional TV advertisers onto its platform, and these kind of advertisers covet couch-time TV watching over views that take place on smartphones and desktops. It’s rolled out a number of ad products that allow brands to exclusively target its connected-TV viewers.

Another reason publishers are producing more episodic content? Because it encourages binge watching. The running assumption for a while was that, if you liked one video produced by a channel, then you’ll naturally seek out other videos from that same channel. But in reality, you’re actually much more likely to seek out other videos with similar subject matter, even if they’re produced by different channels. This is why, when you visit the YouTube homepage, you’re shown videos that YouTube’s algorithm thinks you want to watch, which often come from channels you’re not subscribed to.

Publishers have noticed this trend in their own analytics. Digiday recently reported that viewers of BuzzFeed’s YouTube series Worth It watch more than five episodes per month. “In YouTube’s ecosystem, if users are able to discover a show and start watching it, they’re going to latch onto it and watch multiple episodes,” said BuzzFeed executive director of video Maycie Timpone. “We want to encourage that behavior and give people something they’ve clearly demonstrated that they want.” Another BuzzFeed series, Unsolved, is also watched five times per month by the average viewer.

This kind of binging doesn’t just drive more reliable viewership, it’s also much easier for publishers’ sales teams to sell advertising against. An advertiser is more likely to plop down money on a future video when they already have a firm understanding of the format, content, and viewership numbers of videos within the same series.

The final reason publishers are developing more episodic video has less to do with YouTube and more to do with their longterm plans with video. With streaming services, cable channels, and the big TV networks shelling out billions of dollars each year to fund new shows, they’ve grown incredibly hungry for new IP, and at the same time there’s less willingness to pay for expensive pilots that will never get airtime.

Over the past few years, publishers that include Vox, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Ozy have sold TV programming to streaming and cable networks. And what better way to convince a network that a series will gain traction than by showing that it’s already garnered massive view counts on YouTube? Take the Netflix TV show Explained as an example. Produced by Vox Media, the show is similar in format, editing style, and even length to several of the company’s YouTube shows. Aside from the slightly higher production values for the Netflix series, your average viewer wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

A decade ago, your average video creator might have predicted that the future of television would look more like YouTube, with shorter, cheaper-to-produce videos taking the place of the traditional half-hour series. Instead, YouTube content is looking more like traditional television. We may be watching plenty of video on our phones, but that doesn’t change the fact that prolonged, attentive viewing — the kind that advertisers covet — still takes place on the living room couch. Smartphone video viewership may be growing, but the television is still king.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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