According to a recent study conducted by undergraduate students at Columbia College, serialized content on YouTube is tanking. The study, which collected data on YouTube’s top 241 channels, claims that of the 241 channels, 240 have a focus on episodic content.
YouTube channel Machinima Prime is the only outlet represented in the study that deliverers serialized programming, or shows that follow a linear path from one episode to the next. The findings of the study have proven that among YouTube’s top channels, audiences seem to respond better to episodic content, or content that does not carry over from past videos.
Consider the “=3” YouTube show of Ray William Johnson for example. Johnson’s show is formatted to allow any viewer at any time to pick it up without previous context. Each show is self-contained and requires little to no set up. Serialized content, on the other hand, is similar to the types of programming often found on cable networks, shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Mad Men.” Most of the time, each episode picks up where the last one left off; Machinima Prime’s recent series “Tainted Love” is an online example of serialized content.
The study has clearly exposed the bleak future of serialized content on YouTube. The question that must be asked now is: Why is this type of programming not successful on YouTube?
The first factor involved with the lack of successful linear content on YouTube is simply a matter of video length. The study — which also ascertained a median video length for the top 100 channels — discovered that the average video length for popular channels is 6 minutes, 29 seconds. However, this number is also skewed due to the length of game commentary channels, which typically clock in at longer lengths. If anything, this average is significantly shorter.
As short form content has become the gold standard on YouTube, the ability to craft compelling serialized content has dwindled. As proven by five-star shows like the aforementioned “Game of Thrones,” most serialized shows excel when given long periods of time to craft worlds and characters. When creators must limit themselves to 7 minutes per episode, the task of creating a powerful linear narrative becomes near impossible.
This, of course, is not to say that creating amazing serialized content on YouTube is impossible; web series like the “Marble Hornets” project and “Squaresville” have proven otherwise. Yet, this type of content is still far from reaching the level of popularity seen on the channels of Jenna Marbles, Smosh and Shay Carl.
A second possible factor as to why serialized content on YouTube isn’t quite a smash success resides within the risk versus reward mentality. Currently, as seen on most of the top 100 channels, success has been obtained by virtue of the performer’s personality with no particular attention paid to production value.
Linear content, on the other hand, in many ways relies on strong production values as well as a cast of talented actors, writers and directors. Compelling shows require a sizeable financial commitment in order to deliver the high production values the public often demands of such content. With this fact, there is no guarantee that a creator would see any return if they decided to produce a high-quality web show. Creators have seen that they can excel with an inexpensive camera and their personality — why would they spend thousands of dollars on a production that, according to this study, will most likely be unsuccessful?
The current YouTube ecosystem seems to have been unintentionally set up to support vlog and skit-style channels. As YouTube creators like Ryan Higa and Smosh became early successes, millions of aspiring YouTubers followed suit in both format and tone. The early adopters of YouTube defined what it meant to “succeed” on YouTube, and that definition has yet to include long-form serialized content.
This is not to say that serialized content on YouTube will never be successful or has not already been successful on the video-sharing site; channels like the massively popular Machinima Prime specialize in this style of content, while shows like “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and zombie web series “Bite Me” continually work outside the boundaries of traditionally successful content on YouTube.
Will serialized content ever be successful on YouTube? Do we need to change our definition of what it means to be “successful” online? We want to hear what you think. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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