YouTube Is America’s #1 Streamer. What Happens Next?

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Ask most Americans to name the most popular streaming service, and you’d probably hear brands like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or even maybe Peacock, if there happens to be an exclusive NFL playoff game running that week. In fact – according to TV data and analytics firm Nielsen – for the last 12 months in a row, YouTube has been the most-watched streaming service in the US. Not on smartphones, either. Nielsen only measures TV viewership.

Based on their data, in January, 8.6% of all TV viewing in the US went to YouTube, while Netflix – the #2 streaming service – grabbed just 7.9% of TV use. In a blog post this week, YouTube celebrated one full year of dominance over the Nielsen chart, and parent company Google also revealed that TV viewers around the globe watch around 1 billion hours of YouTube content each day.

Not so long ago, internet videos were thought of as a completely separate (and, let’s be honest, lesser) category from conventional media, with strict and clear dividing lines. TV shows and films were produced by professionals in places like Hollywood and New York, they had large budgets and union crews, they aired on TV networks or subscription streaming platforms, and so forth. YouTube videos, on the other hand, were produced by everyday people and amateurs in flyover country, they had minimal budgets and small scopes, and they relied on social media or aggregator “virality” to find a large audience.

In 2024, we now have an entire generation of adult consumers that grew up on YouTube. In a world where just about all entertainment content is and has been available via streaming apps, the lines between Hollywood creatives and internet creators have hopelessly and permanently blurred. Influencers, TikTokers, and YouTubers from Addison Rae to Lilly Singh to Sabrina Brier are popping up routinely in mainstream Hollywood productions. 

Shows regularly start on YouTube before moving over to subscription platforms and TV networks. Amazon Prime Video has an adult animation hit with “Hazbin Hotel,” that started life as a YouTube pilot. While Disney+ just this week picked up a pair of animated YouTube favorites for the preschool set. As YouTube CEO Neal Mohan put it in that blog post: “When I started at YouTube, people thought about content from major studios and content from creators as entirely different. But today, that stark divide is gone.”

The increasing dominance of streaming over the entire home entertainment landscape can also be seen in the collapse of physical media. Best Buy recently eliminated the DVD and Blu-Ray sections from its retail stores, while Disney this week licensed out its physical media business entirely to Sony (which remains engaged with DVDs and Blu-Rays because you can play them in PlayStation consoles).

As with so many sea change-level shifts in the entertainment space, YouTube’s massive visibility as America’s most popular streaming destination proves something of a double-edged sword for individual creators.

A ton of people watching YouTube all day hugely benefits the people making YouTube videos. As of January 2024, new YouTube releases have the same or greater level of visibility as new TV shows and debut films, especially if they’re premiering on a second-tier streaming service like Paramount+, Peacock, or AMC+. A YouTube video or channel that finds a real audience and gets frequently recommended and featured around the platform has a potential reach that far outstrips something like AMC’s new mystery-drama “Monsieur Spade.” 

On a less immediately practical level, there’s an egalitarian spirit to all content premiering on some streaming platform or another, permanently smoothing out the barriers between Hollywood products and YouTube originals. The playing field has been completely leveled at this point, with new Max shows or Jennifer Lopez’s original Prime Video musical arriving with the same kind of fanfare and marketing push as the latest YouTube clips from MrBeast or BLACKPINK. (And with J. Lo financing and producing “This Is Me…Now” herself, isn’t it basically just a YouTube production on a different platform?)

The well-received Max original animated series “Jellystone!” – which reimagines all of Hanna-Barbera’s classic characters, and sets them together in the same sprawling urban center – returns this week for a third season. Members of the show’s creative team and other animation devotees have taken to social media to note that there has been essentially no promotion. Meanwhile, after going viral on social media, a trailer for the upcoming time travel video game “Kingmakers” has over 380,000 views in just one day on YouTube. So, which of these two options is on the more professional and higher-profile platform? Where would a company ideally place its latest content?

Major studios and media companies have clearly started taking notice of these trends, viewing YouTube as not just a place to get Gen Z hyped about upcoming projects, but as a genuine rival for attention and entertainment dollars. For many years, HBO has posted the full main segment from Sunday night episodes of “Last Week Tonight” to YouTube on Monday mornings. Host John Oliver and others would then share the clips widely on social media, in the hopes that they’d spread all around the internet, make people laugh and/or think, and encourage more of them to tune in to HBO next Sunday night.

This week, HBO stopped using this method of marketing the show and announced they won’t release “Last Week Tonight” segments to YouTube until Thursdays. In a statement, the network said explicitly that they hoped “fans choose to watch the entire show on Max” rather than just waiting for the YouTube clip to go up.

Obviously, YouTube remains a vital outlet for marketing and promotion, and it’s unlikely that studios and streamers will stop employing it in this manner. Netflix just posted the full Oscar-nominated animated film “Nimona” on to YouTube ahead of next month’s award ceremony, though bear in mind it’s been available to stream on Netflix since last summer. But there’s going to be a lot more caution around how the platform is used, and how much content is being given away for free, now that everyone’s watching YouTube on their TVs.

Could all of this new attention have a downside for creators as well, now that they find themselves competing for views directly against players like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO? That remains to be seen.

In the late ‘10s, the “Adpocalypse” shifted YouTube’s balance away from original content and toward more corporate products from major media companies. Nonetheless, the platform remains home to a bustling community of full-time creators churning out regular releases that are essentially indistinguishable from their cable and SVOD counterparts.

It’s unclear at this point whether “Hollywood” or “creators” will remain in opposition to one another at all, or simply merge into a unified, barrier-free collective of creatives.

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