Shane Dawson and the rise of the YouTube episodic series

While Netflix and Amazon have reigned over millennial, online-hosted series, YouTuber Shane Dawson is making his own episodic content with astonishing success.

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Over the last five years, YouTube has had one reliable quality: trends change by the day. The video-hosting site is rife with channels cottoning on to what is new and interesting that week, and the platform gives YouTubers the easy ability to create and publish fresh content as soon as a new trend drops. Ice bucket challenges, “my boyfriend does my makeup”, the latest eye-catching product; different subjects generate a slew of videos and then disappear in a matter of weeks.

These videos all suit the dominant style on YouTube today: they stand alone. They may be part of a series (a series on different makeup techniques, a series of different pranks, etc) but they are not dependent on having seen previous videos. If you, for example, watched a beauty YouTuber's video about Dior in a series about lipsticks, you would not have to have already watched their previous one on NARS. Stand-alone, disposable content is what does well on YouTube, and is what necessitates YouTubers to constantly churn out pieces near daily.

There are signs however that YouTubers may not stay in this lane forever. In a very retro step, long-form, episodic content, released like a television series, is attracting huge viewerships.

The person spearheading the move to a form and schedule more recognisable as TV than the internet is Shane Dawson, arguably YouTube’s first big star. Rising to fame in 2008, Dawson was known for being one of the first people to turn his channel into a full-time job. His videos have, until now, been predominantly parodies – fake music videos, fake film trailers, pranks, and other japes. In 2010, he attempted to pivot to broadcast television, but his reported pilots never made it to the small screen. However, his early work on YouTube built him a strong enough platform that he still maintains his status as one of YouTube’s most subscribed channels and his videos rarely receive fewer than a million views. 

The last few years has seen Dawson making a common style of experiential YouTube video, one where the YouTuber is famous enough already that they can just do things like have a “BLIND GIRL DRIVE MY CAR” or try “RAISING A BABY FOR A DAY” or spend “24 HOURS OVERNIGHT IN HAUNTED GHOST SHIP”.

However, in late June, Dawson took a random, attention-grabbing pivot. Dawson dropped a three-part series in which he interviewed Tana Mongeau, the YouTuber who created the infamously failed video-festival dubbed “TanaCon”,  about how the event went so drastically wrong. The series was a high-quality, high-production value documentary. Even more strikingly, he posted the videos individually over the course of a week, with viewers hyped for each release like an ongoing television series. Viewer numbers were quickly in the millions, with the videos receiving widespread acclaim for their depth, production value, and “riveting” results

Although Dawson went on to publish one more video in July that wasn’t part of a documentary series, he has otherwise exclusively posted episodic docu-dramas since June; one on internet-famous makeup artist Jeffree Star, and another on one of YouTube’s most infamous stars, Jake Paul. Dubbed by some the “king of YouTube”, Dawson’s brand seems like it’s making a hard pivot to this form of content – one that YouTube was always in theory set up for, but that has not really been seen on any scale for a decade. Its popularity (and thus profitability) means the approach is almost certain to be copied by other YouTubers. 

Of course, episodic content on YouTube isn’t entirely new, and was popular in the  platform’s early days – fully fledged television shows such as Broad City and Drunk History were originally published on the site – but its popularity has waned over the last ten years. YouTube does also have YouTube Red, a paid service with original content from YouTube launched in 2015, which was supposed to compete with the likes of Netflix, but which has been widely panned, with even Red’s chief earlier this year admitting that Netflix was just “too far ahead”. 

The recent rise of such content on YouTube was noted by husband and wife duo, Ethan and Hila Klein, who are behind the YouTube channel h3h3productions, which has six million subscribers who watch for reactions to bad YouTube videos and social commentary about the YouTube world. The Kleins noted the rise of episodic content, particularly in relation to Dawson’s popularity, in one of their recent podcasts on 29 September 2018. “Look at all his recent views,” Ethan said of Dawson’s video series. “16 million, 14 million, 18, 24 million...I mean, this is just, this isn’t average stuff. This is insane. This is new level shit.”

While YouTube is the platform hosting these videos, it may also be the thing standing in the way of this content style taking over. In the same podcast, Ethan Klein pointed out something odd is happening in the YouTube trending section – the place where YouTube posts its allegedly most popular content. Klein noted, “Jake [Paul]’s response to Part One [of Dawson’s series] was number two on trending with 2.2 million views in two days... and Shane’s video with ten million views in one day wasn’t on trending. I don’t understand what the hell is happening… What’s the logic?” Many have noted the same problem with YouTube’s trending page over the course of the last year, with some people calling it “rigged” and others demanding reform. While it remains unclear whether or not this is deliberate or a mere glitch, it is not featuring videos with the most views at any given moment in the global trending feed. 

However, the number of views Dawson’s videos are getting in a span of just minutes shows that this content can stand on its own (with or without the help of recommendations from YouTube). In addition to his video views, Dawson has reportedly gained over half a million new subscribers in the days since the first video from his Jake Paul series was published. 

The excitement from those viewers helps too. Tweets have been pouring in since the Jake Paul series dropped, many getting thousands of likes for posts such as “Shane Dawson's series on Jake Paul could be the best documentary I've ever seen” and “me: ok go to sleep it’s 330 am and u have a show tomorrow, also me: new shane dawson video about jake paul that u have no will power against consuming”. Over the last week, thousands of viewers have tweeted saying they “can’t wait” for the next episode. The enthusiasm is almost identical to that of a successful drama on TV or TV-focussed platform such as Netflix. 

Although it’s early days yet to see if swathes of YouTubers try to copy Dawson’s content-style, one thing is clear: episodic content can work dramatically well on YouTube. At the time of writing, the Jake Paul series has a combined 31 million views, and that’s with just two episodes – both of which have multiple sponsorships. Although Dawson's YouTube documentaries have all been about people who are popular on the platform, the numbers don't lie. And if YouTube has taught us anything about trends, it’s that if there’s a video content-style that draws in big views, it’ll be iterated to death.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.