Wolk’s Week in Review: YouTube really wants to be TV, Why mainstream TV still matters

Wolk's Week In Review

1. YouTube Really Wants To Be TV

I was listening to The Daily podcast today, as I do every morning when I walk the dog. Only instead of an ad for car insurance, the show began with this:

“Did you know that for 12 months in a row, one streaming service has been watched on TV more than any other? According to Nielsen, it’s YouTube.”

Granted that is creepy for a whole host of privacy reasons beginning with the fact that I live and walk the dog in suburban New Jersey, far from the offices of any ad agencies or TV networks.

But that is not the point.

The point is that Google desperately wants YouTube to be TV. (So desperately, they’re even running ads on high-profile podcasts to convince people) And the rest of the industry wants them not to be.

As I may have noted, every time Nielsen’s The Gauge comes out, people pretend they just don’t see that first line, the one that says YouTube is beating out Netflix.

Or they dismiss it as fakery, the way one might dismiss a legitimate election result.

But mostly they pretend not to see it.

Which is perhaps why Nielsen issued an alternative version of The Gauge this week, “The Media Distributor Gauge” that measures viewing time by holding company across streaming, broadcast and cable.

Which means Disney, with Hulu, Disney+, ABC, and ESPN (among others) comes out on top.

So take that, Google.

Why it matters

Many people have spent the better part of last week poking holes in the new metric, most of which seems to center around the notion of where to draw the line within the various HoldCos and why are we measuring it this way anyway (mostly because it’s sold that way, but point taken.)

That, however, is not what matters.

What matters is that there are a whole lot of people watching YouTube on their TV sets and we still have no idea what they are actually watching.

We have one set of Olds bitching that a bunch of cat videos and makeup tutorials are different than TV, and another set of Olds telling us that this is what “the kids” are all watching and so we’d better get with it, daddy-o.

So, yeah, and either way, we still have no idea what they are actually watching.

Or if what they are watching even has ads on it. (There is an ad-free version of YouTube as the service reminds me Every Single Time I use it.)

And it is critical that we know this, because YouTube is like that elephant the blind men were describing in that fable we all read back in elementary school. 

It’s got cat videos and make-up tutorials, for sure, and a whole lot of not-very-high-production quality “confessionals” from people with six-digit follower counts. But it’s also got high production quality “pro-am” web series. Bootlegged 360 dpi versions of Hollywood movies with Portuguese subtitles. Actual first run Hollywood movies on TVOD. And a sizable library of on-demand TV series from all the major networks and studios. 

So which is it?

There is an assumption in Hollywood that if most people were watching long-form legit movies and TV series with ads on them, Google would make sure that was front page news.

Which makes sense on many levels, but it is important to remember here that few things at Google make actual sense at any level.

What we’ve heard is that it’s complicated.

That there is a lot of tension at YouTube between their creator business and their TV business, with the former convinced that the latter would like nothing better than to cut them off at the knees and corporate understanding the vast amounts of money they make from creators. 

Because it’s not as if Paramount, Warner and Disney are going to let them take a 45% cut on any ads they sell.

So there’s that and it’s not helping Google in the slightest as they try to explain why they need a seat at the TV table to people who are disinclined to hear them out in the first place.

What you need to do about it

If you’re Google, you need to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and actually start making some decisions.

While the sheer number of viewers you have should move the needle, it’s become quite clear that’s not going to happen.

As much as agencies claim to be “video agnostic” the truth is that they are siloed into TV and programmatic teams and the TV teams need you to start speaking their language or at least try. Because right now you’re coming off like those Americans who show up in places like Cannes and start speaking English without first ascertaining if anyone actually understands them.

And damn, that is cringey to watch. 

So don’t be That Guy.

Tell the industry what types of videos people are watching. Whether they have ads in them. How many ads. Whether those ads are skippable. And what percentage of the people watching YouTube on TV are people who subscribe to the ad-free product.

Then people will start taking you seriously and you won’t have to worry about them secretly spitting in your rosé glass.

If you are an ad agency, no doubt you have informed YouTube that you need to know these things and that brand safety matters to your clients. But maybe tell them yet again.

If you are the rest of the TV industry, pay careful attention to what “the kids” are watching when they watch YouTube on TV and then copy the hell out of it.

That’s what you’re good at and there’s going to be an audience for it.

Go for it.

2. Why Mainstream TV Still Matters

Young Sheldon ended its run this week. The Big Bang Theory spin-off now has seven seasons under its belt, so roughly around 175 episodes have been shot.

Which is why it’s blowing up on Netflix.

Yes. Netflix.

While Young Sheldon did fine on CBS, the audience for broadcast is shrinking and aging. As per the New York Times, the average age for the final season was 65+. 

Warner Brothers, the studio who owns the series, sold the rights to Netflix last fall, and the show has now achieved Suits status—it’s one of the most-watched series on the platform. 

That’s worth noting in that Netflix and other streaming services routinely spend millions on originals, yet it’s those reruns of middle of the road sitcoms and procedurals that are drawing in millions of eyeballs. 

Maybe streaming isn’t so different after all.

Why it matters

One of the issues with the shift to streaming was that every service wanted to be the next HBO. This made a lot of sense when the audience for streaming was largely upscale, educated coastal types, the sort of people who gravitated to HBO.

The problem is that while that cohort plays a big role in shaping the nation’s intellectual discourse, it’s a fairly narrow slice of the population, and so in order to succeed, streaming services needed to appeal to a much broader swath of the population.

Netflix, to their credit, seems to get that—hence their investment in shows like Young Sheldon and in originals like The Night Agent that are not-quite-cutting edge. This may earn them sneers from New York Times critics, but the reality is that critical darlings are rarely mainstream darlings, or, to paraphrase something we’ve heard before, “Why is Barry funny? I don’t get why it’s funny. He kills people!”

So there’s that. 

This is true across all media—mainstream fare always does better, but with TV there was an argument that younger audiences had no affinity for old school formats like sitcoms, which was why the average age for network fare kept on rising and rising.

The problem with that line of thinking is that it lumps all TV together, whereas viewers very much distinguish between the sorts of “lean-in” appointment shows they want to watch without interruption and the sitcoms, reality shows and procedurals that constitute “lean back” TV. Each provides a unique experience and one is not necessarily better than the other. It all depends on what the viewer is looking for at that moment in time.

For younger viewers, that sometimes includes watching someone play video games or someone sharing their deepest thoughts with their iPhone, but it doesn’t mean they don’t also like sitcoms.

They just have slightly less time for them.

That is a problem however, in that as broadcast viewing declines and audiences get older and older, networks will no longer have the heart (or the cash) to invest in 25-episode series. And without that cadence, that constant drumbeat of exposure, you don’t get the magic of shows like Young Sheldon, of seeing characters grow up and feeling like they’re a part of the family.

You get Ted Lasso instead, which is wonderful and unique and well-written, but only has 40 episodes.

What you need to do about it

Ted Lasso’s 40 episodes is why the various streaming services need to start stepping up and creating the next generation of long-running sitcoms.

And by “long-running” I mean 25 episode seasons and seven or more seasons. Shows that become like family to viewers and inspire loyalty and, occasionally, catch phrases.

If you are the various broadcast networks: game on! This is your wheelhouse and no one does these sorts of shows better than you. Whether it’s on your own streaming service or as a studio, you need to get these shows into production. Easier said than done, I know—there is no magic formula for creating a hit that lasts for five or even ten seasons, but the potential rewards—from licensing, from overseas rights and from merchandising, should seem to make taking multiple at-bats well worth it.

If you are a sitcom writer or TV critic, yes, it’s easy to look down your nose at a guy like Chuck Lorre, the creator of Young Sheldon whose multicam, live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience hits like Dharma and Greg, Three And A Half Men and, of course, The Big Bang Theory, defined a different era of television. But there needs to be room for the Chuck Lorres of the world if TV Is going to thrive and you need people who can do that sort of program and do it well, because, as we have seen, there is still a strong market out there for it.

Embrace them.

Alan Wolk is co-founder and lead analyst at the consulting firm TV[R]EV. He is the author of the best-selling industry primer, Over The Top: How The Internet Is (Slowly But Surely) Changing The Television Industry. Wolk frequently speaks about changes in the television industry, both at conferences and to anyone who’ll listen.

Week in Review is an opinion column. It does not necessarily represent the opinions of StreamTV Insider.