Game of Thrones recently made a splash by hitting 7 million viewers for a recent episode. This was an epic number for HBO, the biggest since the halcyon days of The Sopranos. It’s a number that most primetime broadcast shows would kill for. In the meanwhile, the biggest YouTube channel is now closing in on 27 million subscribers.
Many of its clips, such as “Funny Montage.. #2”, routinely top 10 million viewers. We are not talking about one of those fluke videos about a cat defending a boy from a dog attack, but content distributed weekly or even daily, regularly reaching 5 million to 20 million views. And the core content consists of a snarky Swedish man playing video games and making jokes about them. That’s all.
What is interesting about the rise of the Swede in question — a man named Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellber — to become one of the biggest video content kingpins in the world is that he did not set out to appeal to the largest possible audience. Quite the opposite — the content of his PewDiePie channel is resolutely esoteric.
Most of his top clips consist of Felix and his friends playing old and/or offbeat video games most consumers haven’t ever heard of, let alone played. The production values are close to zero. Many of the videos are increasingly self-referential, including ones about the quality and tone of YouTube commentary. Interestingly, this guy is really, really annoying. In the way only a 24-year old, smug Swedish hipster can be.
So why is he the most popular thing on YouTube? That is a fascinating question. Some of it has to do with his editing skills. This is the generation that was immersed in internet from early childhood, so the pace of the clips is blistering — there are often several cuts a second for relatively long stretches. Fart and butt jokes are intercut at a velocity that compresses a standard sitcom joke total into 2 minutes.
There is a carefully cultivated, apparent lack of calculation. Felix seems to just ramble on about whatever comes to his mind. Of course, there is probably a lot of planning, testing and optimization behind this mask of amateurishness. But the whole operation looks sincere, it looks homespun and non-commercial. It makes a lot of other YouTube channels seem artificial and overproduced.
After years of YouTube channel competition, tens of thousands of individuals and companies trying to create the best content, the most popular channel looks exactly what YouTube looked like half a decade ago: Impulsive, cheap and lo-fi. This is what consumers want.