A development league allows you to groom talent for the professional stage. Professional sports leagues are a perfect example of this type of system at work: Each major sport in the U.S. is fed players from the NCAA collegiate ranks with such certainty that they hold drafts in order to claim the rising talent.
This certainty is key to promoting each league’s brand and provides a better professional product on the field. When the average franchise value of a U.S. professional sports team is $1.5 billion, it’s hard to argue against the success of such a system.
Why haven’t other entertainment industries followed the development league model? Because the space is not only new, but also changing quite rapidly. Users upload more video content in 30 days than the major U.S. television networks have created in 30 years. This is an area of incredible potential for major networks and studios to use online video sources like YouTube as a “development league” to feed their high-quality productions.
While the idea of a development league may sound appealing at first glance, there a couple of reasons it may not be as smart a play as major networks and studios think. Here are some arguments for and against the idea and an overview of where the industry may be headed.
Arguments for a Development League
- Star Power Will Draw in Viewers
Star power is no less important than it was years ago, but the medium has changed. Of course, there are still movie and TV stars today, but they rarely affect the box office numbers like stars from the pre-internet era, such as Tom Cruise. Today, stars are made on the internet, and YouTube is their home. Ravenous fanbases emerge and swell subscriber numbers to millions. Some YouTube stars become so popular that they often make more than traditional media stars.
Many YouTube stars have a built-in audience from their channel that consumes content because of the name attached to it. Think of when Kanye tried to sell plain white t-shirts for $120 or (no joke) bags of air for $60,000. A major network or studio can use an established brand based on a YouTube personality and use it to bring some juice to a media production that suits the brand. Cross-over appeal can also create a positive feedback loop between YouTube and the TV networks, drawing in younger digital viewers that otherwise would be unattainable.
YouTube is already implementing this strategy by creating their own original TV series and movies based on YouTube’s biggest stars. Their goal is to expand beyond the hardcore fanbases of stars like Logan Paul or PewdiePie by providing more long-form content, similar to Netflix and Hulu.
- It’s Never Been Easier to Find Burgeoning Talent
YouTube is one of the most popular platforms to find entertainment talent. The music industry has used YouTube as a development system for years by signing talented, young artists to record deals after seeing multiple singing videos. Stars like Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, and Carly Rae Jepsen all started on YouTube. Actors often use YouTube as a means to promote their brand, and casting directors increasingly use the medium to discover potential talent.
Take comedians Adam DeVine, Blake Anderson, and Anders Holm, for example. They were part of an improv group that produced a video short called “Mail Order Comedy” and uploaded it to YouTube. Thanks to that series of shorts, Comedy Central picked up the show and created Workaholics.
Examples like this suggest there is more certainty in discovering new creative talent than there used to be. Most YouTubers’ built-in audience will become viewers for whatever show or movie the YouTuber stars in. This audience certainty is appealing for an industry that struggles to compete with streaming services’ increasing dominance.
- Fresh, Creative Ideas are More Readily Available on YouTube
The loose nature of YouTube allows for more experimentation with entertainment media due to the low input costs compared to traditional media. YouTube stars are astronomically quicker at following new cultural trends in media, and this experimentation often garners millions of views and subscribers. Just as Comedy Central did with Workaholics, major networks and studios can find creative and interesting ideas that tap into the zeitgeist much faster than they could in their executive boardrooms.
Argument Against a Development League
- YouTube is Unpredictable
The problem with relying on a YouTube star to drive the success of a traditional media production is that YouTubers often do dumb things to garner attention. If a YouTube star slips up by saying or doing something controversial, then the traditional media production buoyed by the star’s fame could collapse under the public pressure. This creates a lot of uncertainty and puts too much power in the hands of one aspect of the production.
Recent scandals involving the improper placement of wholesome ads in front of terrorism or white supremacy videos reveal how unpredictable YouTube can be. A star like Logan Paul could post videos of hanging dead bodies and instantly ruin the brand safety of the major network or studio that brought them on for a more traditional production. These recent scandals may prove to be a blessing in disguise: They have forced YouTube to shore up its content policing. However, until this ecosystem is under control, the uncertainty that accompanies YouTube may be too much for major networks and studios to bear.
- Branding Inconsistency
Do you choose to run with the YouTube star’s name and create a media production around that name? Or do you make them play a character in a production that belies their brand? The wrong choice could create inconsistent branding message and hamper a media production.
The hit show Hannah Montana was a good example of this branding problem. In order to grow as an artist, Miley Cyrus had to shed the Hannah Montana character and rebrand herself with her original name. While fans eventually understood the difference, the initial branding shift was incoherent, and Miley’s star power diminished (albeit temporarily).
- Large Corporate Interests Dictate Creative Content
Would YouTube stars even want to collaborate on corporate-produced content if it meant being creatively restricted? One of the selling points for YouTube, up until its recent controversies, was its status as an “anything goes” space. That creative freedom was lauded as a feature of the platform. Some video content creators may not accept the creative restrictions major networks and studios will inevitably place on creators.
One could argue, though, that utilizing YouTube as a development league for traditional media and reigning in video content is part of the natural evolution of the platform. YouTube’s next logical step is to become the gatekeeper of its creative talent. YouTube’s TV service has already acquired all major TV networks to stream to over-the-top viewers. YouTube could provide networks with exclusive access to YouTube’s content creators and, thus, create a natural pipeline for content creators into the TV and movie industries.
Ben Grubbs, a former YouTube executive behind the biggest YouTube stars, has created a company that wants to help video creators make money more easily. Grubbs has already started a development league that is backed by a $50 million venture fund. The development league process is already happening, but it may not be as clearly defined as the NCAA-to-major-sports-league model.
The ultimate question remains: Does YouTube really need TV networks and movie studios? Why act as a development league for the supposed “big leagues” when you can hire Will Smith, Priyanka Chopra, and LeBron James to produce ad-supported originals for you? The answer, as always, lies in-between. YouTube may come to embrace a symbiotic relationship with traditional media instead of simply feeding them a new crop of superstars.