YouTube dominates streaming, forcing media companies to decide whether it's friend or foe

How YouTube beat Netflix and Disney in the streaming wars

It’s been almost 20 years since the founding of Alphabet’s YouTube, and Hollywood still doesn’t really know what to do with it.

YouTube, which effectively invented user-generated content, claims a daunting share of overall media consumption. And it’s no longer just dominating the internet, it’s dominating the living room, too.

YouTube made up 9.7% of all viewership on connected and traditional TVs in the U.S. in May — the largest share of TV for a streaming platform ever reported by Nielsen’s monthly “The Gauge” report. Netflix ranked second, claiming 7.6% of viewership. Among streamers only, YouTube’s total viewership was close to 25% market share.

“We’re not talking about your mobile phone, your laptop, that I’m sure you see your kids using all the time, but on the biggest screen in the house, the TV,” said LightShed media analyst Rich Greenfield. “Every [media] executive has to be paying attention.”

But media companies such as Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery aren’t sure whether YouTube is friend or foe.

Some media executives see YouTube as a companion platform to subscription streaming services and cable TV — an unwieldy behemoth of non-narrative, creator-led content with a social media slant that doesn’t really fit the New York-Hollywood nexus of professional media. Others — even at times the same executives — view YouTube as an existential threat to the entertainment industry, stealing viewership from subscription streaming services and, with it, the cultural center of American youth.

Those competing truths have led media and entertainment companies to concoct a wide array of strategies to combat the growing threat.

Disney leaders discuss YouTube “every day” in strategic meetings and have considered adding user-generated content to Disney+, though it’s not on the immediate roadmap, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery, on the other hand, have consciously chosen to focus on the other 90% of the TV viewing world that isn’t YouTube.

“I do think it snuck up on people that YouTube was as important a presence in people’s lives and people’s viewing experiences not just on the phone but in the living room,” said Tara Walpert Levy, YouTube’s vice president of Americas, in an interview.

“When Nielsen first noted that YouTube was winning the streaming wars in terms of viewing, full stop, not just for ad-supported platforms, I had a ton of my friends from advertising, from media, who were like, ‘Can you believe it?’ It exceeded even our expectations,” she said.

YouTube’s growing dominance

Google’s Tara Walpert Levy, now YouTube’s vice president of Americas, speaks during a 2016 Advertising Week New York event, Sept. 28, 2016.

John Lamparski | Getty Images

Earlier this year, YouTube Chief Executive Officer Neal Mohan announced that users watch more than 1 billion hours of YouTube content on TV screens each day. More than 150 million Americans watch YouTube on connected TVs each month, according to the company.

Ad dollars have followed. In 2023, YouTube took in $31.5 billion in advertising revenue, up 8% from 2022 and 271% from six years ago. In the first quarter of 2024, YouTube’s ad revenue climbed 21% from a year earlier to $8.1 billion.

YouTube, founded in 2005, sold to Google for $1.65 billion a year later. It’s since ballooned in size as advertisers flocked to the platform. MoffettNathanson media analyst Michael Nathanson estimated in March that YouTube would be worth a whopping $400 billion as a standalone company — more than Disney and Comcast combined.

YouTube is still the 800-pound gorilla in this space, and I do believe they’re a pretty unstoppable juggernaut,” said Candle Media co-CEO Kevin Mayer, who previously ran Disney’s streaming business and was briefly CEO of TikTok.

Disney’s YouTube focus

Disney executives are particularly attuned to YouTube’s rising dominance, given its grip on younger people, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

Disney has a legion of super-fans who flock to YouTube and other social media sites to promote and critique its parks, rides and merchandise, movies and TV shows. Integrating some of that content as shoulder programming to Disney’s scripted series and movies could help keep users on Disney+.

A Disney spokesperson declined to comment on conversations about adding original content to the platform.

You’re betraying your audience. You’re leaving YouTube to act, and then you’re not posting online anymore, and you’re asking them to wait on a project that’s in development for what? A year, two years? People are going to forget about you, girl. That’s how the internet works.”

Brittany Broski

YouTube creator

“I think what we’re seeing from all of these traditional media companies is they don’t have enough content, and it’s too expensive to produce the types of premium content at scale that they need. And so maybe the [user-generated content] economy is a place they look … not to create their competitor, but as a lower cost way to add content to their services,” said LightShed’s Greenfield.

Disney is also considering putting more full episodes of Disney+ and Hulu series geared to older kids and adults directly on YouTube to entice an audience that isn’t currently subscribing to its streaming platforms, said a person familiar with the matter.

This is a strategy Disney has done with kids content for years, helping amplify hit animated series such as “Bluey,” “Spidey and his Amazing Friends” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.”

Cartoon characters from the children’s show “Bluey” are displayed during the Brand Licensing Europe event at ExCel, in London, Oct. 4, 2023.

John Keeble | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“At the end of the day, Disney is a storytelling machine,” said Mayer. “We used short-form video on YouTube as a promotional device for our content. But I don’t think that we at Disney, nor have any other traditional media companies, leaned into YouTube as an original storytelling device the way they probably should have.”

According to internal research, Disney executives concluded that younger Americans use YouTube as an online encyclopedia, said one of the people familiar with the company’s discussions. That’s led the company to focus on the benefits of the platform’s discovery functionality while also programming against it, the person said.

Disney has made bespoke YouTube content for its new preschool series “Disney Junior’s Ariel,” which debuts June 27, to introduce the mermaid character to kids. It has also developed a series of “Winnie the Pooh” shorts so that it can research how the animated bear and his friends resonate with today’s youth.

The company is now considering making a full-length animated series on “Winnie the Pooh” based on the short-form video data, the person said.

Netflix’s muted response

Netflix is taking on YouTube from a different angle.

It doesn’t view the platform as the same singular threat to viewership that some of its peers do. Netflix famously considers everything that could occupy a user’s time, even sleep, as a long-term competitor.

For the time being, Netflix executives consider YouTube as catering to a different consumer need.

“We have built a hard-to-replicate combination of a strong slate, superior recommendations, broad reach and intense fandom, which drives healthy engagement on Netflix. Improvement in these key areas is the best way to delight our members and continue to grow our business,” Netflix said in its most recent quarterly shareholder letter.

Netflix has even found some success duplicating content on YouTube in specific instances.

“Cocomelon,” the animated toddler-geared short-form video series owned by Candle Media’s Moonbug Entertainment, has become massively popular on both YouTube and Netflix. “Cocomelon” has 175 million subscribers to its English language YouTube channel, and “many more if you add in all languages,” Mayer said.

At the same time, “Cocomelon” frequently tops Netflix’s most-watched list among kids shows.

Posters showing “Blippi” and “Cocomelon” characters are displayed at the Moonbug Entertainment stand during the Brand Licensing Europe event at ExCel, in London, Oct. 04, 2023.

John Keeble | Getty Images

The more immediate YouTube threat for Netflix comes from an advertising perspective. Netflix is now going head-to-head with YouTube for marketing dollars after introducing its ad-supported tier in November 2022.

Netflix said in May that it has 40 million global monthly active users for its advertising tier. That’s a far cry from YouTube’s more than 2 billion monthly active users.

Netflix is even contemplating launching free versions of its service in certain international markets to court advertisers, though there’s nothing concrete planned, Bloomberg reported earlier this week.

Netflix declined to comment for this story.

Other strategies

Comcast-owned NBCUniversal has experimented with new ways to copy the rabbit-hole effect of YouTube Shorts, which force-feed users content based on interest, by offering curated clips of “Saturday Night Live” sketches, scenes from “The Office” or favorite Bravo show moments.

If younger users are being conditioned to watch in a certain way, NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service wants to give consumers that choice in addition to its long-form movies and TV shows.

But simply curating feeds within a content vertical now feels like a “YouTube 1.0 strategy” given how TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels have redefined short-form viewing, according to Nathanson.

“I don’t think, at this point, there’s a strategy in place among any of the traditional media players to create content for the YouTube generation that’s more than just their branded strategy they’re doing now,” said Nathanson. “The future strategy is to use AI to deliver personalization for each of us. Today, none of the traditional media players has that. That’s YouTube 2.0.”

Amazon is trying a more direct plan of attack — pay YouTube’s biggest star to make a show for their own service.

The company announced a deal earlier this year with MrBeast, whose real name is Jimmy Donaldson, to make a reality TV show, “Beast Games,” that will pay the winner $5 million in cash. The format will largely borrow from previous MrBeast giveaway videos that pit many contestants against each other for cash, using a “fast-paced and high-production format,” as Amazon has promised.

MrBeast accepts the Favorite Male Creator award onstage during the 2023 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards in Los Angeles, March 4, 2023.

Monica Schipper | Getty Images

MrBeast’s YouTube channel has the most subscribers worldwide at 289 million and expects to take in a whopping $700 million in revenue in 2024, primarily through advertising and brand deals.

But while MrBeast may have crossover appeal, there’s skepticism among creators that YouTube celebrities will have success making shows for subscription streaming services. Moreover, the entire Hollywood system may operate too slowly for a younger generation that demands immediate content.

YouTube’s community

The popularity of YouTube stems from the authentic relationship creators have with their fans, according to Brittany Broski, 27, whose YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers.

“I still watch Netflix and HBO, where if I want a good fantasy series or whatever, I know where to go for that. But what YouTube is more concerned with is in this digital age, we’ve lost a sense of community and a sense of third spaces where we can go to hang out and meet new friends,” Broski said.

Broski’s audience, which she described as Generation Z and young millennial women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, ballooned during the pandemic. Stuck at home with limited social options, hundreds of thousands of people found Broski as they searched for fresh, real-time content.

That personal relationship is YouTube’s secret sauce, and it doesn’t translate when creators port to other services, Broski said.

“You’re betraying your audience,” said Broski. “You’re leaving YouTube to act, and then you’re not posting online anymore, and you’re asking them to wait on a project that’s in development for what? A year, two years? People are going to forget about you, girl. That’s how the internet works.”

Brittany Broski at VidCon 2022 in Anaheim, California, June 23, 2022.

David Livingston | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

The business model of YouTube for successful creators incentivizes staying on the platform. YouTube has shared more than $70 billion with its creators over the last three years through its Partner Program, which shares advertising revenue with more than 3 million channels on the platform.

“Why would I create a show and sell it to a network when I could just put it on YouTube?” Broski said. You’re self-funding, but if the money you’re making from AdSense is going right back into your content to make more money, why do you even have to contact that third party?

YouTube also benefits from a low barrier to entry to create content and from instant feedback through comments from fans that often help shape future content immediately. That model can’t be replicated in a scripted form, where full seasons of TV shows are premade and rolled out on specific schedules.

“In the traditional industry, it’s about proving to other people that the content deserves to be made, deserves to be seen, deserves a marketing campaign, deserves dollars behind it,” said YouTube star and former professional cyclist Michelle Khare, 31, whose channel has more than 4.5 million subscribers. “With YouTube, if you have the drive, the ability, and in many cases, your phone, you can skip those steps and put it out into a democratic platform where the audience ultimately decides what rises to the top.”

Michelle Khare at The 2023 Streamy Awards in Los Angeles, Aug. 27, 2023.

Gilbert Flores | Penske Media | Getty Images

Aging out

Warner Bros. Discovery executives are perhaps the least concerned of all legacy media companies about YouTube’s rising dominance, which skews younger. Ninety-three percent of teenagers say they’ve used YouTube, far outpacing TikTok (63%), Snapchat (60%) and Instagram (59%), according to a 2023 Pew Research study. A 2023 survey from marketing firm InMobi found 61% of Gen Z respondents, or those ages 18-24 at the time of the survey, named user-generated content as their favorite form of media.

Warner Bros. Discovery’s Max streaming service has moved away from programming geared toward kids and teenagers — barring the occasional accidental hit such as “Euphoria.” The company’s focus on prestige dramas and adult movies is about as far away from YouTube’s typical fare as an entertainment company can offer.

Baked into the question of whether YouTube is friend or foe to the media industry is a second query: Will younger consumers simply grow out of YouTube’s bread and butter — the creator-led, non-narrative style of storytelling?

“My suspicion is that there will be a bit of an aging out,” said Mayer. “I think longer form storytelling is hard to replace with super short form storytelling.”

There may be room for both subscription streamers and YouTube to survive and flourish, with each operating in a lane that doesn’t impede the other’s too much. Still, YouTube is experimenting with episodic and scripted series to appeal to all audiences — a direct threat to traditional Hollywood. “Cobra Kai,” a spinoff of “The Karate Kid,” began on YouTube’s ad-free subscription service YouTube Premium, picked up a fan base and then moved to Netflix.

“There is some amount of conditioning that happens when you become familiar with a certain format that resonates with you, but what we are seeing is it’s not so black-and-white between a certain type of audience wanting a certain type of content,” said Nicky Rettke, YouTube’s vice president of product management.

There’s also the future threat of artificial intelligence on YouTube. While Hollywood’s use of AI is contractually restricted, and was a sticking point of recent strike negotiations, there are no current rules for user-generated content. Theoretically, this gives YouTube creators a huge leg up in experimenting with technology that could rival the production values of professional studios, putting even more pressure on traditional media.

Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.

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