Friday 28th July 2017,
Televisual

Graduating from YouTube Hard Without Big Media Support

Increasingly as the supply of content online rises, getting your work and/or yourself noticed is a major challenge.

Graduating from a site like YouTube, even after gaining a high profile, is even more difficult. Suddenly producers find they can’t push their products/themselves alone. They need the big media.

The big media wasn’t there for out YouTube star William Sledd.

Three years ago — time flies! — Bravo made a gutsy move by signing Sledd to do an online fashion show for their otherwise unremarkable site OutzoneTV (defunct). But they dropped him, unable to find advertisers to support the content.

He’s back on YouTube this week! “Everything was limiting me before, and this is just going to be me,” he says of his new vlogging venture, called What William Thinks. He still has 100K+ subscribers to work with, though he was once among the top vloggers on the site. He should be able to earn a small living through the site’s Partner program and perhaps come up with some new ideas.

The truth is, though, now he, like other YouTubers, is relying on YouTube’s imperfect ad-supported model, which is getting better at contextual and appropriate ads, but is far from perfect.

Advertisers and traditional media still haven’t quite worked out how to efficiently scale independent producers like Sledd or various web series. Branded entertainment, which may work better than traditional ads, has been one solution, and a very logical one; these deals, however, take time, and that’s time some companies like Bravo (NBC) are not willing to invest. Companies are promising nifty schemes to give publishers (here, I would categorize both Sledd and YouTube as publishers) more control over their advertising, making it better for both the producer and advertiser.

Right now, the impression-based model — which treats online ads relatively agnostically, meaning the context and quality of the site and its users take a backseat to view-counts and demographics — is working for some sites, but not many. YouTube, with its billions of monthly video views, stands to benefit the most from this numbers-based model, but it still isn’t profitable! I’m hoping to write an article soon about what online video sites are doing to combat these profitability issues.

Meanwhile, the difficulty making money online means sites and content creators are still heavily dependent on traditional sources of income. Could YouTube’s second most popular user, Fred, have self-funded his feature-length film (recently purchased by Nickelodeon)? Given his reported income and the fact that he still lives with his parents, I think yea. But the millions (low seven-figures) being poured into his film gives him more exposure than he could get on YouTube. Once distribution and marketing funds come in, he’ll get more. Whether his niche fan base will follow him to a bigger screen remains uncertain, though his increasingly mainstream appearances suggest it’s possible.

Even during production, Fred‘s backers were unsure how to push the YouTube star to a mass audience: “Distribution plans are still unclear, but Jeremy Zimmer, a United Talent founding partner, said the agency would pursue a theatrical release or possibly a pay-per-view option,” according the Timesprofile. Fred on his own has more weekly viewers — and a younger, more desirable audience — than many critically acclaimed cable television shows. But YouTube is an imperfect distribution platform. It lacks the infrastructure — ratings agencies, efficient ad placement system, star-pushing publicists — to make its popular and productive users into self-sustaining household names.

When even YouTube dynamo Fred Figglehorn needs the old media, we probably need to rethink what kind of power is really available to new media entrepreneurs.

I wish William Sledd much luck. He has the gift of gab and a bubbly personality. Is that enough to make him a star? Or will he need a company like Logo (Viacom) to thrust him again into a bigger spotlight?

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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