Format versus context: Can a YouTuber make it on TV?
Photo: Jakob Owens
YouTube star MrBeast is making recent headlines for his video upload experiment with X, and now a potential partnership with Amazon Prime Video for a new reality series. The competition to turn the popular YouTuber into an audience draw for other platforms is on – but can a star in one place, still be a star anywhere else?
This would not be the first time an entertainment company has tried to convert a popular social media figure. One might remember Addison Rae, the TikTok star who was brought in for the Netflix film He’s All That, a remake of a popular 90’s movie. Or one might be forgiven for not remembering her, as the film got a 23% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes and received ‘generally bad reviews’. Consider also the social-star heavy Mean Girls remake, which has been controversial, or Nathan Evans, the viral Sea Shanty artist. He is now signed to Polydor Records and maintains a healthy 5.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify… but his most popular songs by far remain ‘Wellerman – Sea Shanty’ and ‘Wellerman – Sea Shanty / 220 KID x Billen Ted Remix’.
The formula “popular in one place = popular in other place” does not, it seems, always work when moving a social star elsewhere. Social is its own genre; it may share ‘formats’ in the form of images, videos, and sounds / music with more traditional entertainment, but the context of consumption – or, rather, the platform itself – seems to be the more powerful distinguisher. YouTube videos have a specific character to them, as do TikTok videos, and both are strongly distinct from a Netflix show, for example – not least in the fact that Netflix does not allow for audience participation. Moreover, social is inherently ‘niche’, whereas traditional entertainment leans more towards mainstream. What can be a runaway success in the accurately targeted social feeds of the apps can fall totally flat when presented to a larger audience in a more traditional format, and vice versa.
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So, can a social star ever make it big in a world outside of social?
It seems that, in this day and age, a format is simply one vehicle to connect audiences with an IP. Star Wars, for example, has books, films, TV shows, theme parks, and video games. Games like League of Legends and The Witcher have well-performing soundtracks on Spotify, popular TV shows on Netflix – and are one of the main reasons 16-19-year-olds engage with YouTube. Some IP has a better chance of spreading cross-format than others; the deeper the IP, the better the odds. Complex stories do well, which is why things like Star Wars, League of Legends, and Dungeons and Dragons are so flexible. The more lore, the better.
For individuals, it is another matter entirely. Along with social stars, this puts music largely at a disadvantage, especially as streaming drives artists ever further into the background. However, there are exceptions that prove the rule: Queen, with Bohemian Rhapsody, The Beatles (with their many films), and Taylor Swift, with her wildly popular The Era’s Tour movie. Yet these artists share something in common. They are more than just their music; rather, they are the cornerstones of much larger cultural movements. In short, they are telling stories with deep IP, but those stories are the audience’s own.
In the same vein, MrBeast – as one of the most (if not the most) popular YouTubers ever –might be able to ‘translate’ into streaming TV. His importance in the rise of gaming culture as well as the truly interactive nature of his content, from audiences choosing challenges to winning money on his channel, as well as his activities and outreach that already extend beyond YouTube, means that his fame is already somewhat decoupled from the platform – and he may be a cultural trend unto himself. Then again, without the interactivity available through YouTube, enthusiasm might cool. The tricky thing about a social star’s popularity is that, often, audiences do not like the star in the post so much as they like themselves in the comments section. MrBeast may have a chance at television success – but if he does, do not consider it an indicator that this transition is a given for anyone else. He may yet be just another exception that proves the rule.