The fact that television viewing is changing dramatically — being disrupted by the web, by YouTube and other factors — isn’t breaking news. It’s something we report on a lot at Gigaom, and almost daily there is some announcement that helps reinforce that trend, like the fact that Netflix now has more subscription revenue than HBO, or a recent survey reported by Variety that shows YouTube stars are more popular with young internet users than Hollywood stars.
That last piece of news really hit home for me, because it got me thinking again about how my own family consumes what used to be called television, and how much has changed in only a single generation.
I’m old. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat. I was born a few years before the moon landing, and I remember us all watching it as a family, my brothers and I lying on the carpet staring at the giant black-and-white TV set with the rotary knob for changing channels — something that we kids were required to do before the advent of remote controls. We had a total of about five channels then, as I recall (and we walked five miles to school every day, uphill both ways).
It’s all about Vine and YouTube
Now there’s a whole generation of cord-cutters, something my colleague Janko has written about extensively, and I have one daughter firmly in that camp: when she and her boyfriend got an apartment together, they chose to get high-speed internet and either download everything they want to watch or stream it via an Android set-top box. But my two youngest daughters — one teenager, one in her 20s — are even further down the curve: like the kids surveyed by Variety, names like PewDiePie and Smosh are more relevant to them than than most Hollywood actors.
Neither of them actually admits to liking PewDiePie, a Swedish man who talks about video games and has 29 million subscribers. But they certainly know who he is, and are intimately familiar with his work. And they are unabashed fans of other YouTube creators and also of a growing group of Vine artists — whose work is in some ways more fascinating, because each clip is just seven seconds long.
For them, the stars worth knowing about are YouTubers like Olan Rogers, or Vine artists like Thomas Sanders, who has 3.7 million followers. At this point, I would say 70 percent of their video consumption involves YouTube and Vine.
This method of consuming video has crossed over into other areas as well — so, for example, they both devoured the book The Fault In Our Stars and waited eagerly for the movie because they were already fans of author John Green, one-half of the group known as the Vlog Brothers, who got their start on YouTube and then branched out. Green’s novel hit #1 on the best-seller list at Amazon before he had even finished writing it, in part because of his established social following.
It’s not just those kinds of names either, the ones that have already broken through to the mainstream. Both of our younger daughters would rather spend hours of their time with content from someone like Rooster Teeth — another social-web media conglomerate that started with voiced-over Halo game videos — than any regular broadcast TV show, even the ones that are trying desperately to use Twitter and other social media to drive attention to their programs.
The future of TV is social
Rooster Teeth is a fascinating story of a media entity that has reached a significant size without many people ever having even heard of it, and is now a kind of mini-studio for various kinds of mobile and social content. And then there’s the YouTube star known only as Disney Collector, who appears to be a fairly anonymous woman living in Florida, and makes anywhere from $1.6 million to $13 million a year doing short videos in which she reviews children’s toys.
Until recently, you probably could have put Twitch in that category as well: an offshoot of Justin.tv, it grew exponentially by focusing on gameplay videos, and anyone who wasn’t already part of that community likely didn’t notice until reports emerged that Google was going to buy it for $1 billion. I remember someone on This Week in Tech asking me why anyone would pay so much for such a thing, and I said: “Obviously you don’t have young kids.” By that point, my daughters were already spending hours watching video clips of people playing Minecraft.
The girls do watch what might be called “normal” TV, but in almost every case they are programs that have a heavy social component — shows like Doctor Who and Teen Wolf — and in almost every case they discovered them via Tumblr. A group of fans discussing one show will mention another, and they will move to that show and download whatever they can find. Shows often involve live-tweeting or live-blogging the episode, and one daughter maintains not just her own Twitter account but a fan-fiction style account based on a character from the show.
I’m sure not everyone is as deep into this kind of thing as my daughters are, but I find it hard to believe their behavior is that abnormal, and I think smart artists, creators, producers and others in the TV industry are already playing to that kind of emergent behavior — the way Teen Wolf has engaged in a back-and-forth with its online fans. Studios are looking for “crossover stars” like John Green, who can bring their social following with them to books and movies or TV shows. And the evolution of what we call TV continues to accelerate.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Joanna Zieliska