These days the History Channel has degenerated into the Nazis and Junk Wars channel; The Learning Channel is all about pregnancy and babies; and even the Science Channel is basically just medical mysteries and fast-tracked explosions. Actually informative content has been drained away. Sadly these channels, though failing to fulfill the promise of their names, are making informed business decisions based on what viewers actually watch.
In an age of digital cable, when every view is logged and weighed, big advertisers are looking for big numbers; content creators, cable and YouTube channels alike, are in the business of views. Two things set YouTube channels apart from their mass market peers. It’s cheaper to run a YouTube channel than it is a network and, even though YouTube channels deliver smaller audiences than cable or broadcast, their audiences are often more engaged, contributing content and feeling ownership. This is the Holy Grail of advertising: Fewer dollars spent to access hyper-targeted audiences who may actually want to use their products or services.
But beyond the boring business talk, what does YouTube 2.0 mean for viewers in search of engaging content? It means there is something like Crash Course, next to which The History Channel, yes the entire channel, pales by comparison.
The Crash Course YouTube channel was started by a pair of brothers, John and Hank Green. Google, which funds Crash Course through YouTube’s $100 million original channel initiative (expanded to $200 million in 2012), didn’t just hand them the money and hope for the best. Before Crash Course John and Hank spent 6 years making a collaborative YouTube channel called the Vlogbrothers on which they agreed to abstain from all forms of textual communication and instead talk to each other only via videos. They talk intelligently about their lives, John’s novels and Hank’s music, “the futility of effort and the necessity of struggle.”
The Green brothers demonstrated that well thought-out arguments and ideas had a place on YouTube just as much as sneezing pandas and funny cat compilations. They proved there was an audience for smart people discussing smart and complicated subjects. Their subscribers grew quickly. Their audience, whom John and Hank refer to as “Nerdfighteria,” began to raise money and fund Kiva loans and generally rally together as a real, if geographically dispersed, community. They even founded a now YouTube-wide event called the Project for Awesome (with the humorous tagline, “online creators decreasing suck”), which raised nearly half a million dollars in December 2012 for various charities promoted by the community.
It was with this support behind them that the Vlogbrothers were able to create Crash Course, which releases two professionally produced videos a week. In 2012, these videos were courses on world history, hosted by John, and on biology, hosted by Hank. Recently, the Greens have added additional courses in Literature and Ecology. They use a combination of insightful and clear dialogue and animations to keep the viewer involved. The world history show in particular remakes the dull grade school subject into the fascinating and meaningful story of the human race, the way it must have been told before the textbook industry got ahold of it. After a year, Crash Course now has 429,000 subscribers.
Crash Course is a great example of the explosion of talent and creativity in the YouTube meritocracy. The audience was built first. Youtube communities seem more willing to be advertised to, but only if the content the ad is associated with is meaningful to them. Google’s investment is clearly paying off for viewers and producers, and may be the way of the future if advertisers follow.