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Content Is King With Online Video, But it's Not the Only King

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When I was 5 years old in 1971, I wanted to be Speed Racer. Every day after kindergarten, I’d come home and watch the latest episode on UHF Channel 18 out of Milwaukee, then get together with my friends and take turns being the lead character or his mysterious, long-lost brother, Racer X.

When my first son was 5 years old in 1994, he wanted to be a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. Like me, he’d watch the show (on basic cable, not UHF) and then act out various storylines with his friends in the backyard when he was done.

Speed Racer and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers had little in common besides their origins in Japan and the fact that their central characters were regular guys and girls who just happened to have superpowers (or at least super driving skills).

Today, my 5-year-old son Ike has his share of super-hero fantasies -- he has been known to wear his Iron Man costume from morning until night. But lately, his aspirations have been inspired by a kid just 2 years his senior, one who has no superpowers but plenty of charisma and a dad who knows how to shoot video.

Evan, whose parents don’t publicize his last name for privacy reasons, has racked up more than 300 million views and 420,000 subscribers on YouTube for his EvanTubeHD channel. The channel’s premise is a simple one, based on the unboxing videos that have been a staple of user-generated video since YouTube launched a decade ago: Evan opens up toys -- Legos and Angry Birds are his favorites -- and shows how they work. His dad, Jared, runs a single camera and applies a few basic video effects such as rewind, slow motion, and time-lapse (How else are you going to show a kid putting together a 1200-plus piece Lego version of the Millennium Falcon?), and kids like my son go crazy, watching the same videos over and over, and even parroting Evan’s comments. After a recent haircut, Ike even proclaimed proudly, “It looks just like Evan!”

So what’s this got to do with this year’s Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook? When publisher Joel Unickow and I sat down to decide on this year’s cover theme, we kept coming back to the cliché, content is still king. Everything that’s written about in these pages ultimately revolves around that simple phrase.

Or so we thought. Joel posted the striking cover image on his Facebook page, and soon a discussion ensued over whether the cliché remains true. A few industry veterans chimed in, arguing that from an investment perspective, great content doesn’t matter if you don’t have an audience. And soon the debate became more nuanced. Great content will always find an audience even if the platform is lousy, wrote one commenter, while merely good content needs more help by being on an already popular platform or surfacing via search and social media. Even downright bad content can find an audience, he wrote, just by being on every platform possible. And once a platform’s audience has been built, then it will use that platform to seek out new content before seeking another one.

And so today, one could argue, we’re looking not so much at a monarchy but a triumvirate, where audience, content, and technology are equally important in the eyes of investors and stakeholders. Platforms and services such as Roku, Netflix, and YouTube have found their way into just about everyone’s homes and onto their devices, so they are now driving investment and dictating what content rises to the top. As good as it is, EvanTubeHD is still relatively long-tail content that never would have never found a home on UHF or basic cable. It has been able to achieve tremendous success via YouTube, which has no barrier to entry for either the content (anyone can create a show and post it) or audience (anyone with an internet connection can watch). But even though every EvanTubeHD video is preceded by a pre-roll, the advertising isn’t relevant to the target audience -- elementary school-aged kids. Sometimes it’s not even appropriate; a random sample of recent episodes featured ads for not only Toyota and Dannon yogurt but Bud Light.

Can you imagine the uproar if Nickelodeon started accepting beer commercials? Clearly, there remains a disconnect among the triumvirate, although as you’ll see in the pages of this year’s Sourcebook, each element is evolving exponentially compared to previous years. Still, there’s a lot of work to do. So let’s get to it.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook as “All Hail the King(s).”

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