What TV Got Right — That YouTubers Haven’t (Yet)
Been really into mental models recently, and thinking about how you apply lessons from one industry or project to another.
Here are some quick thoughts on how established YouTubers might leverage lessons from TV writing in their own content development:
Set an overarching goal for the show. Basically branding, with an emphasis on genre. Successful television shows define what they are — sitcoms, political dramas, comedies. This helps the audience understand how the format works, and what to expect.
Consider developing loose show and season arcs. Releasing in “seasons” will help prevent creative burnout, without compromising audience communication. When creators hit the inevitable burnout cliff, they usually make a video about taking a “break.” Having clear-cut seasons prevents this. Audiences know when you’re on and when you’re off.
Build your equivalent of a writers’ rooms. Most writers say they only have a loose idea of where a show is headed overall; they’re laying the track as they go. Still, they’re able to track character development, inciting events, and little details over the course of many episodes. And then, plant Easter eggs for super fans, close loops, and make sure all the component parts make sense.
Creators can do something similar by building a team of editors and writers — who track the evolution of their brand story as a whole, and bring pieces of it into the present. Their job is asking the hard questions like — if I’m new to watching this channel, which is the first episode to watch? And further, how does the current audience — who’s been following along live — actually understand the brand story arc right now?
Release episodes that bleed into each other. Episodes that feel completely disconnected are missing critical leverage. TV takes the opposite approach of most YouTube channels by hooking with the last episode and sinking with this one, then leaving another hook for the next. Hook, sink. Hook, sink.
Back-to-back YouTube episodes don’t need to necessarily play of the same storyline, but they should have continuous threads, leave cliffhangers, and tease future episodes. This lowers the effort required from a creator to get a person to click on the next one. This is why Airrack’s couch and yacht series worked really well last year.
Keep critical details consistent. Characters, obviously. But theme songs, sets, branding, too. Think about Friends. Central Perk Café and Monica’s apartment are the central focal points; they’re the backdrop to basically all the magic. Viewers on YouTube are seeking that same consistency. Casey’s studio will forever be my favorite YTOG set.
Write characters in and out. Hard to know if this will work over time. It’s never fully worked in TV at the “main character” level, but sometimes works with side characters. The show still goes on when one dies off…
Create spinoffs. The Vlog Squad has executed this to some degree. Each character has their own show, and Views is really just the next iteration of David’s vlog. We’ve seen in TV that spin-offs rarely succeed at the same level, but instead act as marketing for the main show.
Think about future binge-ability. I heard Max Greenfield who played Schmidt in New Girl talking about how more people walk up to him in the grocery store now than when the show was on Fox. Netflix distribution gave New Girl it’s truest bump. Imagine all the people that haven’t yet discovered Emma Chamberlain or David Dobrik. They have hundreds of episodes to binge. You want that as a creator. It creates a long-tail.
That’s pretty much it. Though, one quick caveat — being too rigid with this framework would prove detrimental. There are inventory, algorithm, and audience concerns with “going too TV.” A creator’s flexibility is their strength. It allows them to hop on trends or comment on world events and shift around episodes around because one is taking longer to post-produce than expected. Giving that up isn’t necessarily the right play.
But it’s still helpful for considering — what will be sustainable over time? And what has TV done well that we might be able to apply to solve content-related problems here?