The Scorpion and the Frog
I’m guessing you’ve heard by now about the fall from grace of YouTube star, PewDiePie. The mainstream media finally figured out that his videos are full of anti-semitic (and plenty of other outrageous) comments. What you may not have seen, however, is Disney’s announcement that its wholly-owned MCN Maker Studios is not just dropping PewDiePie, but also 55,000 (!!) of his YouTube compatriots. What in the world is going on here, and what does it mean for the future of TV? Two things.
1. PewDiePie is the Natural By-Product of Online Culture
The title of this piece comes from the animal fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him over the river and the (nice) frog gracefully agrees. As they are crossing the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. As the frog realizes what’s happened he asks the scorpion how he could so such a thing. The scorpion answers, “You knew I was a scorpion, didn’t you?”
Obviously, there is an analogy here. PewDiePie (and the host of YouTubers inspired by him) is the scorpion. Disney (and other legacy content companies) is the frog. The interesting question here is not “PewDiePie, how could you do such a thing?” The question that I would be asking Disney if I was PewDiePie is “You do know what it is I do, right?” In other words, PewDiePie’s now obvious faults are the very same qualities that caused him to become popular in the first place.
Does anyone think teens and young adults watch YouTube because of the amazing production values and the brilliant writing and acting of its performers? Give me a break. The entire appeal of YouTube is that it gives young people like PewDiePie a completely raw, unfiltered medium in which they deliver daily stream-of-consciousness rants on random topics while also playing the occasional video game. And let’s be honest –- our culture is at the moment enthralled by ‘raw and unfiltered.’ Do you think anyone would watch PewDiePie reading from a teleprompter? No, I don’t think so either.
This issue is not limited to YouTube, of course. Twitter, Facebook, and other online platforms all face similar challenges. Vine (may it forever rest in peace) was basically ground zero for jackass bro culture. The point is simple, but disturbing. In the attention economy, success has been redefined as the ability to capture attention. Basically, likes are all that matters. PewDiePie had (and still has) 53 million subscribers. Ergo, he’s successful. The way you capture attention, unfortunately, is to do or say outrageous things. PewDiePie is incredibly good at this, as are many other YouTubers. Those who now express shock and dismay at his antics are either hopelessly naïve or cynically disingenuous.
2. Legacy Brands are Held to a Different Standard
For me, the most interesting thing about this story is the dynamic between Google (or Alphabet if you prefer) and Disney. Each is the parent company of the protagonists in this drama. YouTube in one case, Maker Studios in the other. The reactions of the two companies seemed initially similar, but in reality couldn’t be more different. YouTube kicked PewDiePie off of its paid YouTube Red service, but didn’t touch his YouTube channel. As of today, this whole incident doesn’t seem to have cost him any subscribers and he still has (by far) the most popular channel on all of YouTube. Just as importantly, no one seems to particularly fault or blame YouTube itself for PewDiePie’s transgressions or expect the company to do anything differently going forward. The fact that YouTube generates lots of traffic and ad dollars from people like PewDiePie is simply taken as a given.
Disney, on the other hand, seems to be going to DEFCON 1. On first glance, dumping Maker Studio’s entire roster and essentially shuttering the place seems to be an overreaction. Obviously, there are financial interests at play here. Maker Studios has certainly never lived up to its $675 million purchase price. Nevertheless, Disney seems to have gone out of its way to note that 300 hand-picked YouTube stars who that fit Disney’s brand and values will be absorbed by the mother ship as part of the restructuring. In other words, out of 55,000 content creators only 300 were consistent with the Disney brand. Really? That’s a bigger cut-down than Gideon’s famous 300 in the Old Testament.
What’s the lesson here? Well, clearly not everybody’s brand needs to be as squeaky clean as Disney. But not everybody can get away with YouTube’s casual indifference either. I believe legacy brands (content providers and MVPDs alike) are held to a fundamentally higher standard than are so-called ‘Internet companies’ like Google and Facebook. AT&T (via DirecTV Now), Verizon (via Go90 and likely Yahoo), and others all have partnerships either live or in production with ‘new media’ stars of various types. All of these legacy providers are hoping for a breakout star like PewDiePie that can command a huge following of young millennials for original, exclusive content on their platform. Be careful what you wish for, guys. You just might get it.
Seeing PewDiePie as an individual ‘bad apple’ fundamentally misunderstands the nature of online media. PewDiePie is as much a product of the Internet as any Buzzfeed list or funny cat GIF. Legacy brands need to tread carefully.
Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.
Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to technology start ups. He lives near Seattle, WA.