The Web Series: RIP

The most popular content on YouTube? It’s not your web series, at least according to this article and study. According to the study, of the 241 most popular YouTube channels, 240 focus on episodic content, such as vlogs and low-cost, low production-value skits whose stories do not carry over from one episode to another. This is in contrast to serialized content, which describes most dramatic or comedic television content. On YouTube, serialized shows lack the popularity of easier-to-produce, episodic content by a 240 to 1 margin. That’s kind of a big deal.

The article suggests a couple of valid reasons for this disparity:

  1. Time. Videos on the most popular channels average about six and a half minutes, and the mean is dragged upwards by longer video game reviews. If you remove the game reviews, the average time is most likely much lower. YouTube viewing appears to favor short-form entertainment, and serialized content requires at least some length to be effective (imagine an episode of Walkind Dead lasting only five minutes).
  2. Cost. Why spend the thousands of dollars and invest the man hours needed — which includes writers, actors, crew, editors, etc — to create a serialized, dramatic series when one person with a webcam can achieve as many if not more views? In addition, given YouTube’s current viewership patterns, it would be risky to even attempt to create a high quality, expensive serial since there is little guarantee that you’ll get a return on investment.

I’m just going to go ahead and do what no one else has the courage to do. It’s time to put the defibrillator paddles away and go ahead and call it:

The Web Series is dead.

Before you click down to the comments and start sending me some well-deserved flames, let me explain myself … Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but that’s just what they are. I am completely aware of Red vs. Blue, The Guild, and Dr. Horrible. But exceptions to the rule are just that. You don’t base your argument on the outliers. That’s bad analysis. It’s not that web creators haven’t tried. There have been attempts at creating web series since the nineties. Of course, back then the blame could be placed on the lack of broadband and the expense of creating and editing original content, but by now both of those factors have become a non-issue. Still, web series have not taken off in a way that could be described as statistically valid.

For whatever reason, as a general rule, YouTube consumers seem more interested in short-form, easily digested entertainment. As such, the answer to the question of why web series don’t work is probably not going to be discovered in content analysis of YouTube programming, though content analysis is certainly valuable in suggesting possible answers to the question. A more thorough study will focus on how, when, and why users consume YouTube content. In other words, research needs to explore how YouTube content fits in the broader entertainment habits of consumers. How do users view YouTube content in relationship to movies, music, television, books, etc.? Understanding the time, context, and environment in which consumers view YouTube videos (in addition to a host of other variables such as demographics) might help us better understand why web series don’t work.

My gut feeling? The expectation isn’t there, because it has yet to be consistently met. Television works because it has a track record. YouTube just doesn’t have it yet. YouTube has always marketed itself as a source of user-generated, amateur content. Despite efforts to include movie rentals and other professional content, perhaps users just don’t think to turn to the network for quality entertainment on par with what they can get through other networks such as cable or Netflix. How many users are going to YouTube for YouTube’s sake, versus the expectedly large population who come to YouTube videos through Facebook shares and embedded links on other websites? It’s a question worth answering, as these types of shares are conducive to the quick, easy-to-swallow, one-off videos, not an extended series.

Television also works because it can be viewed on a big screen on the couch. It’s just not the same, psychologically, to sit at your desk and watch it on your computer screen. Now, whether this is an actual factor requires further research. Numbers suggest a large volume of Netflix viewing happens on PCs and iPads, and YouTube has as much access to those screens as Netflix. Perhaps people just aren’t used to pulling up the YouTube app on their big screen via the X-Box to view a new, high-quality series. Again, it’s a matter of user habits, expectations, and preferences. Factor in that web series typically focus on short, five-to-ten minute episodes versus an actual television series whose episodes range from twenty minutes to an hour, and the differences between the viewing experiences become more palpable.

More research is required here. However, the implications are readily apparent. At this point, focusing on making a series of short episodes for web distribution may not be as valuable as focusing on making a longer-form series or feature film. Further research could suggest why this is the case, and provide some guidance for how content producers could more effectively harness the web to distribute their content.

So, what do you think? Is the web series dead?


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