Last week I attended the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival - the UK TV industry's annual decampment to the festival city for three boozy days of keynotes and canapés. Post bank-holiday, the dust has just about settled on Elisabeth Murdoch's MacTaggart (read the full text here), which went down pretty well on the ground, and doesn't seem to have ruffled too many feathers elsewhere.
For my part, I was most interested in what Murdoch had to say about what she called the "explosive emergence of a made-for-online video category". MGEITF was "powered by YouTube" - keeping delegates going with a swanky smoothie bar and getting highlights from every session online in the blink of an eye. But it was a small, low-profile panel session called 'Who needs a commission anyway?' that got to the heart of what YouTube means to the industry today.
To preface this, a personal confession: I'm embarrassingly obsessed with watching YouTube 'beauty gurus'. I'm not sure where it comes from - I don't even wear that much make-up - but I just can't stop watching them . My absolute favourite 'guru' (horrible word) is the entirely delightful FleurDeForce, a 24 year old with nearly 400,000 subscribers on her beauty channel, a wildly popular vlogging channel and a bridal channel. She's massive in the States too, with fans queuing for up to 14 hours to meet her at VidCon. A one-woman broadcast network.
Fleur was joined on her MGEITF panel by YouTube superstar Jamal Edwards (you might remember him from this Google Chrome ad), a 20 year old internet mogul whose SB.TV - "the UK's leading online youth broadcaster" - started as a YouTube channel established to showcase local grime acts and has turned into a business empire. Jamal is a really remarkable guy - a content creator who makes exactly what he wants, gets it out into the world off his own back, and clearly cares deeply about his audience.
And it's this audience relationship that is the defining feature of YouTube success stories. Fleur told us that it's all about engagement - she has a direct, authentic and unfiltered interaction with her viewers. She makes the content they ask for, her channels are an ongoing conversation. Elisabeth Murdoch touched on the importance of this in her MacTaggart: "Commercial broadcasters," she said, "must figure out how to have a real one to one relationship with each and every one of their viewers." And this isn't about data gathering and recommendation algorithms, "it's about deepening the relationship with the audience through a two-way meaningful interaction - a true experience."
For Murdoch, consumer engagement is key - translating audience trust into transactional relationships. It's true that a huge number of vloggers have their own successful online shops. (Fleur sells jewellery, Jamal sells music and t-shirts.) But more important is the distinctive relationship between content creator and audience on platforms like YouTube. It's an intimate relationship - vloggers in their bedrooms speaking to consumers with laptops on their knees. And it's the sense of authenticity and relatability that characterises the most successful content. Like their audience, the channel owners are mostly in their teens and twenties. They're creating the content they want to watch. How does that translate onto traditional broadcast TV? I'm not sure it can.
By the end of MGEITF, it was a pretty throwaway comment by Jamal Edwards that was still stuck in my mind. He spoke about a conversation he had with BBC1 controller Danny Cohen:
"I wanted to create a series for young people to show them you don't have to be a footballer, you don't have to be an MC, you can do other stuff. So I told him that idea and he was like 'people are not going to want to watch it'. So, in my head I'm like, cool, I'm going to create it and see who watches it."
Just brilliant. And this is exactly where TV needs to catch up with digital platforms. Online, you don't need a commissioner, and you don't need to second-guess what your audience wants. You just get it out there and see who watches it. You might think that's easier said than done - but why jump in with a massive, expensive studio format when you can test out ideas and talent in smaller ways online? Don't wait around for a commission, just get your content out there. Real artists ship.
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