The biggest video channel in the world barely existed last time Hollywood’s writers went on strike – and it crosses the picket line every day, argues Duncan Greive.
We’re now four weeks into the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike, a work stoppage that has turned off the bright lights for dozens of major shows, and has had major impacts around the world – including New Zealand, where bookings at our production facilities are reportedly drying up toward the end of this year. It’s Hollywood’s biggest labour strike since 2007, with writers demanding action on a host of complaints associated with the rise of streaming. These include shorter TV seasons and smaller writers’ rooms – which both mean less work for writers – and the tiny residual payments they receive for shows later in their lifespans. There are also fears about studios’ future use of AI in the writing process.
Yet a much more clear technological danger has been absent from much of the discourse around the writers’ strike. That is the rise and rise of user generated content, or UGC – in other words, video made for platforms like TikTok and YouTube. UGC consumes an ever-higher quantity of audience attention, particularly among younger and more diverse audiences.
This means the current strike is taking place against a very different backdrop to the last in 2007-2008, when the audience for legacy media was still near its apex. Yet the preconditions for its decay were already established: in the preceding 12 months, Google had bought YouTube and Steve Jobs had unveiled the first iPhone. With those two acts, the creation of mass-audience media began its inexorable shift from a relatively small number of trained professionals to a legion of committed amateurs. The traditional entertainment industry’s tight hold on attention and culture had begun to loosen.
YouTube is rapidly replacing television
While social media is rightly cause of considerable scrutiny, as far as the film and TV worlds are concerned its impact has been relatively muted. A survey by Verto showed Facebook’s average session length is less than five minutes, and Instagram’s is less than three. This is because Facebook and Instagram are primarily used for short interactions such as messaging or keeping up with friends. TikTok is a different case – it’s an incredibly powerful new challenger with an average session length of more than 10 minutes. Nonetheless, it has its limitations as a substitute for film and TV. Its videos are typically short, and its advertising products to this point are similarly brief, and skippable on contact.
This is not the case for YouTube. Despite the launch of its TikTok clone Shorts, YouTube has stuck to a core horizontal format – one of a number of crucial differences from its social media peers which makes it functionally more like Netflix than Facebook or Instagram. Its commercials more closely resemble those of television, and its ad breaks are becoming more like what we remember from linear TV, making it an easy switch for a traditional advertising industry seeking to explore digital. Thus money pipeline that funded the TV shows the striking writers worked on is now increasingly heading to YouTube instead.
That’s not the only way YouTube is becoming television: almost half of US YouTube viewing now happens on TVs, rather than phones or desktops. In fact research agency Nielsen’s flagship Gauge chart now has YouTube as the single biggest channel in the US, with 8.1% of total viewing, meaningfully ahead of Netflix on 6.9%, and more than twice third-place Hulu on 3.3%. Perhaps more troubling again is the trend line. When the Gauge chart debuted in August of last year, Netflix had a handy lead over YouTube, meaning the UGC channel overtook its more conventional counterpart in a matter of months, even before the strike came along.
YouTube’s revenue-share model allows a small number of power users to make meaningful incomes – and sometimes a lot more – from the service. A huge army of lower-tier users flock to YouTube with dreams of joining that group, creating content to fill every conceivable form of niche. YouTube’s 2022 culture report bears this out, with 55% of Gen Z viewers noting that they watch content “no one else they know personally is interested in”. That’s a complete reversal of the big shared moments most legacy media aim to create.
The picket line is crossed every day
This is ultimately why the striking writers’ picket line is nowhere near as effective as it was in 2007-08 – because millions of people cross it every day. The brilliantly creative showrunners of Hollywood would retort that there is a qualitative difference between Mr Beast’s expensive stunts and the finely-honed talent which produced this week’s Succession finale. They are right. It’s also true that there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who would, in a vacuum, prefer the giddy scale of Marvel movies or late nights with Jimmy Kimmel over a video of someone driving from Denmark to China in an old car. But the former cost money to watch or are scheduled at a specific time, which might explain why the latter has over five million views.
The shift from industry-produced content to user generated content is now a long-term trend, part of a shift of trust and preference from institution to individual. Tools to speed up the edit or give a more professional look and feel are more widespread than ever, a phenomenon only increasing with the rise of generative AI for video. The pandemic broke the production pipe for movies and TV, and prompted more people to find a new mode of hyper-specific entertainment. Now there’s a prolonged absence looming – giving people a reason to hunt out something new.
The rise of UGC means there are way more substitutes than there were last time around. While the issues raised by striking writers are entirely valid, the world has fundamentally changed since their last industrial action. There’s a real chance that the longer the strike drags on, the more audiences gravitate towards content made outside the formal entertainment industry, further decreasing the power of those working within formal entertainment systems, and further shifting power and audience to the giant tech platforms – particularly YouTube, home to a never-ending firehose of user generated content.