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Why TikTok is pushing YouTube into becoming the digital version of broadcast

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Photo: Leon Bublitz

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

Social (short-form) video is barely two-decades old, having broken away from traditional TV shows and films by innovating for the digital-first world we now live in.

While YouTube was the original innovator, TikTok is booming. Short, snappy clips that deliver bite-sized, hyper-concentrated bursts of entertainment with information and the punchline all in one have been a clear hit among audiences. So far, however, this video format does not really compete with more established / traditional video streaming from the likes of Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video. Attempts to turn short-form video into subscription platforms like Vessel and, more recently, Quibi, have largely failed to gain traction.

Yet, as social platforms start to look at monetisation and subscriptions themselves, perhaps it is time for a reassessment of the revenue opportunities of these existing, successful short-form / social video platforms.

YouTube usage is far higher than that of broadcast (or ‘live’) TV, with 60+% rates of weekly use penetration in all markets. It permeates among all demographics, albeit more so among younger audiences. When digital natives want to learn how to do something they are increasingly turning to TikTok and YouTube for practical information or guidance. More than just places for user-generated content, movie trailers, snappy takes, and memes, these platforms are becoming a home for the live coverage that was previously the exclusive territory of TV networks.

TikTok hosted live coverage from every angle of the Depp v. Heard trial, and Twitter has long been a source for breaking news from users on the ground, setting the precedent for social platforms as an access point for information and entertainment alike. Yet, even more official partnerships are becoming commonplace. For example, the 2023 Oscars were streamed on YouTube in certain markets. Further, Sky made the first episode of Last of Us free on YouTube, and BT Sport normally makes a livestream of the Champions League final available on the platform as well.

YouTube is free at the point of access, has high consumer penetration, and is accessible from almost any device in any location (smartphone, laptop, smart TV, iPad). It is clearly exploring channel formats and monetisation opportunities from YouTube Shorts, YouTube Premium, YouTube TV, and experiments with channels, playlists, discovery algorithms, and suggestions. Should the company continue to iterate and find something that works as a financially viable alternative to live TV, adoption will be swift. This opportunity is elevated in emerging markets that are leapfrogging over the West’s slower analogue transition into a digital-first world.

YouTube was long viewed as a ‘Barker channel’ for TV networks – a free way to promote content. Now, it increasingly has a role as a partner for TV networks looking to diversify from dependencies on the streaming majors such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. With TikTok on the scene challenging YouTube for primacy over social video, YouTube may begin to lean into its existing partnerships, mainstream reach, and imminent accessibility to become a hub for video beyond social.

Expect the pace of change for YouTube to accelerate as social video continues to self-disrupt.

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