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Why Publishers Chase the Teen Video Market and Lose Every Time

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I was in the middle of writing this column when Verizon announced it was cancelling Go90, ending its life of nearly three years. The timing is perfect, because this column is about what happens when the suits chase teen viewers.

People over 30 are used to being baffled by the video platforms tweens and teens choose. LiveMe? Hard pass. Twitch? Uh, when is it my turn to play? And yet, we always assume that because we’re not in the demo, we just don’t get it. “The people who came up with this must have a better idea what teens like,” we think.

But do they? Look at the failures. Fullscreen’s subscription video-on-demand service died in January. Vidme went away the month before. And now Go90, after multiple revamps, has lost the battle.

This applies to everything Vice (the company) has ever done, by the way. I’ve watched Vice for years, but I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of its programs. They’re irritating, both smug and low-budget. But Vice was growing so fast I figured someone knew what they were doing. I thought that until New York magazine published an article in June called “A Company Built on a Bluff,” revealing that Vice never had a significant audience. It was all bluster, and CEO Shane Smith was eager to sell it off before the house of cards came tumbling down.

As VidCon started this year, Instagram launched IGTV, a spin-off platform that lets anyone post long-form videos. Why on earth would anyone want that? Isn’t the fun of Instagram quickly flipping through your friends’ posts? Do people want to spend up to an hour watching one video?

To find out, I spoke to someone much more entrenched in the area than I am: Beau Bryant, the general manager of talent for Fullscreen. And Bryant told me I’m asking the wrong question. The question isn’t which platform does the best job appealing to teens; the question is which platform brings the most monetization opportunities to creators.

“Ask any talent, the person will say, ‘If [Facebook] just turned on monetization, everything would be better.’ But that’s kind of how we feel with most of the platforms,” Bryant says. “If there was more monetization open to more talent, you would have better content and more consistent content and people would be leaning in more, and if dollars starting flowing through to them, they’ll lean in harder. That’s what YouTube did a really good job of in the beginning.”

After talking with Bryant, many of the dots I was seeing at VidCon suddenly connected themselves. For example, YouTube’s keynote address this year was largely about monetization tools for creators—such as the ability to sell monthly memberships to superfans for $4.99. VidCon lounges hosted by Amazon, Twitter, Snapchat, and Fullscreen all featured merchandizing partnerships, and these partners displayed products creators could brand and sell on that platform, such as T-shirts, fidget spinners, and PopSockets.

I was seeing VidCon as a conference where creators looked for strategies to grow their audiences, and execs looked for strategies to grow their sales. But I was missing the bigger story taking place: Platforms were battling to win creators, and they weren’t doing it by promising bigger audiences or wider distribution. Instead, they were offering more ways to make money.

“I just think the talent will always follow the dollar, so if the dollars are there the talent will follow,” Bryant says.

In 2018, creators know how to appeal to viewers. What they need is a way to make a living. Better monetization opportunities will lead to more people able to go full-time as creators. So buy a T-shirt from your favorite show, and remember it’s not about how well a platform attracts viewers, it’s about how well that platform compensates talent. That makes sense no matter what age you are.

[This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Chasing the Teen Market and Losing Every Time."]

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