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Industry Trends
April 12, 2023
min read
Daniel Conn

TV isn’t dead, it lives on YouTube

TV networks are struggling. Hit by streaming services on one side and digital content platforms on the other they have had to share eyeballs over the past decade and that means a divided revenue pie.

Yet despite the decline in eyeballs, the average CPM for national TV broadcasts has doubled in ten years, most likely compensating for the revenue loss that comes with less viewers. This can’t be sustainable: the writing is on the wall for traditional TV, certainly with advertising as the principal revenue stream.


National TV broadcast networks upfront advertising cost-per-mille (CPM) in the United States from 2008/09 to 2019/20 season

For the content producers making the hit TV shows, however, YouTube can absolutely be a salvation. In this piece we’re going to look at:

  • Why TV ratings mean very little in terms of the overall presence of TV based content
  • What is the size of opportunity available to TV content producers on YouTube?
  • What would it mean to tailor the content to maximise revenue?

Before we get into these questions let’s establish what we’re talking about in terms of TV stars. Our working definition can be literally anything on TV, as diverse as massive sports brands like the NBA and sports entertainment like WWE, to cult classics like Pawn Stars and Duck Dynasty and everything in between. As long as the primary product is TV-based, it counts.

Why do TV ratings mean very little in terms of the overall presence of TV based content?

In September of last year, Donald Trump returned to one of his favorite topics - TV ratings - this time with the NBA in his sights in the wake of the protests around the death of George Floyd. In a sense he wasn’t wrong: NBA TV viewership was on the decline and in fact it has been suffering for a number of years.

Where he was massively wrong was that the NBA was and is in the midst of a major surge of popularity… on YouTube. In September 2020 there were 12,000 individual videos featuring the keyword NBA on YouTube, reaching 16,000 in March 2021.

These 16,000 videos had an average viewership of 69,000 with total viewership at 1.07 billion views, all in one month!

Compare this to the TV ratings over the same period. There were around 120 games through March 2021 with average viewing figures around 2m. That totals up to somewhere in the region of 250m television views. 1.07b on YouTube vs. 250m on TV, and that’s just for the keyword NBA.

There are tons of other keywords that can contribute to the overall presence of NBA basketball on YouTube. For example “Lakers” racked up 271m views over the same period, 76m of them without a mention of NBA as a keyword, so an entirely different set of videos with zero overlap. Similarly, “Lebron” racked up 121m views without NBA content as a keyword. The overall impact of the sport of basketball and its crowning jewel the NBA as a product is massive, vastly outweighing its significance when measured in TV ratings.

The NBA is not alone in this.

Below is a chart showing the steady decline of WWE’s Monday Night Raw program’s viewership since its peak in 1999.

Yet when we look at the growth of “WWE” on YouTube the trend completely goes in the other direction. 

The WWE has not been blind to this phenomenon - their YouTube channel, one of the largest and most successful on the platform, generated average views of 480,000 over the past 12 months across over SIX THOUSAND videos. WWE as a brand is bigger than it ever was, whereas WWE as a TV product is at its lowest ebb.

It’s a near universal pattern. Take for example the Dark Side of the Ring documentary series produced by Viceland about tragedies in the wrestling industry’s past. The first episode of series three released on May 6th 2021 was a huge success for the channel generating viewership of 272,000 and yet on YouTube over the same period the keyword Dark Side of the Ring reached 2.26m viewers.

Even shows that have been off the air for a while are finding a second life, often bigger than its first life on YouTube. Duck Dynasty was a cult fan favorite that was on air from March 2012 to March 2017 running to 121 episodes. At its absolute peak on TV it was generating as much as 11m viewers, but for most of its run it hovered between 1-3m, adding up to a total viewership across its 11 seasons of around 450m, by any measure a smash hit.

On YouTube, views of Duck Dynasty content total 637m, 324m of which have occurred after the show ended. Even more curious is that Duck Dynasty is trending up on YouTube since it finished.

This phenomenon shows the demand consumers have for the TV brands. They just don’t want to meet them at the traditional distribution point. Given that the brands know all this, why haven’t they pivoted from TV entirely?

What is the size of opportunity available to TV content producers on YouTube?

Of course, just because people talk about a TV phenomenon on YouTube doesn’t mean that the original TV content producers can make money out of it. Nevertheless often the principle producer does have a significant slice of the overall market. For example the NBA official channel has 1.3B views over the past 12 months of a total of 13.7B views of NBA keyword content. 10% is not too shabby at all.

The RuPaul’s Drag Race official YouTube channel has 141m views generated over the past 12 months, again around a 10% share of the views the keywords “RuPaul” or “drag race” generate over the same period.

The most important factor with YouTube, though, is that there is almost no such thing as topic saturation. Whilst the main RuPaul channel has 10% of the views there are over 2000 creators who have talked about it. For the NBA that’s over 8000 in the last 12 months alone.

The point being is that if the Original Content Producers wanted to expand their presence with additional channels, there is an audience for it, and very few are coming close to their potential in terms of maxing out views.

WWE gives us the perfect example of a media organization who knows how to own a significant share of its own content market. They know better than anyone the size of the opportunity available to them.

In January 2021 WWE signed a 5-year streaming deal with Peacock, NBC Universal’s streaming service for the domestic rights to their programming worth $1B. This works out to $50m in quarterly revenue. The viewership of the WWE YouTube channel over Q1 2021 was in the region of 9B views. If we’re being incredibly optimistic and saying 100% of those views had an ad served on them through ad-roll at an average of $2 CPM it would be worth $18m over the same period. This definitely won’t be the case though; most likely it’s less than half that and the WWE, whilst boasting about their YouTube performance in their annual reports, hasn’t been too forthcoming on the direct revenue stream from it.

“Advertising and Sponsorships

WWE utilizes the Internet and social media platforms to promote our brands, market and distribute our content and digital products, create a community experience among our fans and sell advertising across these various platforms. WWE currently streams its media content on select social media platforms, such as YouTube and Facebook. WWE surpassed 70 million subscribers on YouTube, and consistently ranks among the top viewed channels, with over 21 billion views of WWE content in 2020. The Company also receives advertising revenues from YouTube and Facebook based on viewership data of our content.”

WWE 2020 Annual report

So we have this truly bizarre situation where Peacock has paid an effective $1000 CPM or thereabouts to WWE to distribute the TV content all the while WWE is getting paid probably around $1CPM or less on its YouTube views when factoring in the views with unserved ads.

We reviewed at the beginning of the article that the average $ CPM of nationwide TV advertising was $36 in 2019/20. If content producers can only expect $1 or less from YouTube then it’s clear that they cannot look at it as a principle revenue stream even if viewership on the platform outstrips that of TV. 

When looked at it this way it’s obviously still in the interests of WWE to be TV focused even if distributed through a streaming service as the revenue dwarfs that of YouTube for them. 

But what if WWE got a $30 CPM on its views?

Well on that basis the quarterly revenue on their YouTube channel would be worth $270m, annualised to $1.08B, all of a sudden looking a lot more interesting! Well, this must be fantasyland as there’s no way they are getting that CPM out of YouTube. 

They may not get it out of YouTube but they can get it on YouTube.

What would it mean to tailor the content to maximize revenue?

Some TV stars have already learned the earning potential of building a YouTube specific product.

Jimmy Butler, NBA finalist in 2020 with the Miami Heat has a YouTube channel with 718k subscribers. His Sous Cheing with Jimmy Butler mini series was sponsored by Michelob with a total of 5m views generated to date. My guess is that Michelob paid more than a $30 CPM for the content but even if it did that’s $150k generated by one NBA player in two videos.

He’s not alone: Trixie Mattel star of the 7th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and winner of All Stars season 3 has 1.35M subscribers and pumps out content with an average views of 785,000. Trixie has acted more like a YouTuber working with many of the brands that are sponsoring YouTube content regularly. Since taking it more seriously in mid-2019 Trixie has generated more than 100m views with the vast majority of that content supported by a sponsor.

At a $30CPM that’s $3m generated in sponsorship revenue.

These are just a couple of examples of creator channels making it work, but more and more people who have made their name in TV in some way or another are leveraging that fame to generate sponsorship revenue on YouTube. Despite this, the main content brands, in these cases the NBA and RuPaul’s Drag Race, however, aren’t really looking at sponsorship as a part of the revenue picture.

So, many people are getting the money from the brand association but not the content originators.

Of the just over 8000 content creators on YouTube mentioning the NBA, more than 1400 were getting sponsorship money from that NBA-focused content. The NBA official channel? Nada.

Even looking at our old friends Duck Dynasty, of the 256 creators who talked about Duck Dynasty content in the past 12 months, 45 of them were getting their Duck Dynasty content sponsored where, again, Duck Dynasty got nothing.

We can keep going - 325 creators benefitted from RuPaul’s Drag Race, 735 from WWE… it goes on and on.

Why are these brands not taking advantage of a market that is clearly there and how could they do so should they wish to?

The first part of this question is not so easy to answer but I believe it comes down to a mixture of a lack of knowledge and a touch of snobbery. TV markets and media sales have very little cross-over with the new world of content sponsorship with the personnel running the channels on YouTube way down the organisational food chain from a revenue generation perspective as compared to those striking deals related to the main TV products. As such there isn’t the leadership in these areas to recognise the revenue potential of pursuing YouTube sponsorships as a core revenue stream.

Ok I’m claiming to know better than execs at multi-billion dollar organisations. How would I do it then?

Alright, I’ll put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. This is my plan for WWE to make bucket loads of money from sponsorships: someone ping Vince McMahon for me. I’ve chosen WWE because a) the revenue share potential is enormous and b) they own everything including character IP. I think this model could work for every TV product no matter the relationship with their characters but levels of contracting could be more complicated.

For an organization like WWE I’m looking for scale in everything - we’re not gonna nickel and dime over agreements - therefore we’ll put in a minimum deal size of $1m. I’m also looking at practical scale - we can’t be having busy wrestlers being full time content creators at the same time as managing their regular schedule.

Step 1: Turn every wrestler into a channel

Wait - didn’t we just say that wrestlers can’t be full time content creators? Yes we did, but we don’t really need them to make too much new content. They have already made the content throughout their careers in the matches and promos they delivered. Yes they can contribute, if possible, original content to their channels but it doesn’t need to be the meat of it. As we can see below, “clips” content on YouTube is massive and growing with over 30k monthly videos.

What’s more, this process would work really well because the wrestlers are brands in their own right. Let’s look at the data around a number of wrestlers inactive and active over the past 12 months.

True, these are hall of famers or future hall of famers, but the long tail is pretty long. If our previous assessment of an original content producer being able to claim 10% of total views then we can look at generating 400m views from these five wrestlers channels alone. This process will allow fans to subscribe to the channels and wrestlers they connect with the best and provide WWE with a variance in fan demographics that make up each wrestler’s audience. Maybe Ric Flair does better with the over 35’s and Roman Reigns does better with the under 25’s.

Given the amount of wrestlers in the history of WWE worthy of their own channel we could be looking at at least 100 channels here. You may say, “come on, surely no one is gonna watch this stuff.” Well I say you’re wrong. (So does the data.)

Look at the channel Wrestling Bios: every week they release a video reviewing a single episode of Monday Night Raw and its competitor product WCW Nitro which were competing with each other in the late 1990s. They are 51 episodes in and views are steadily above 50,000 an episode. There is definitely gold in nostalgia.

On this basis I think we can at least double the overall views of WWE as a network. This would give us somewhere in the region of 50B impressions to play with each year.

Step 2: Create reusable assets

We still need our wrestlers to promote the products: this is sponsorship after all and brands want the authenticity of the endorsement, but we can do it in a super time-efficient way.

WWE strikes a deal with a brand. They get a number of the wrestlers to cut 30 second promos in wrestling style thanking the sponsor and promoting the deal. These same promos can be used over and over again for at least a 3-month run edited into the clips videos, and the brand sponsor’s logo can be placed on screen as well. 

Step 3: Create scaled per view packages

Because we’re producing so much content at this point we can sell off packages of views (minimum $1m remember) built in the following way:

1. How many promotional characters (wrestlers) are we using?

Charge a minimum fee per character: this can be done on a scale depending on popularity.

2. Are we selling the usage rights of the promotion for the brands' own social media?

If yes, double the price.

3. How many views are we buying across the WWE YouTube network?

We can offer scaled pricing for large buys.

Let’s build a sample deal. Let’s say Manscaped wants to work with WWE - why wouldn’t they, seems a perfect audience for them. We work with five wrestlers, minimum spend per wrestler is $50,000 so we’re up to $250,000. This will include views but we’re establishing a baseline.

They want to use the usage rights on their social media for the wrestlers, makes sense these are big names here and a huge asset to have associated with the brand.

We look at doing 50m views to start across the network to start with at a $30 CPM making the deal size $1.5m, this works because we’re over the $50,000 per character minimum spend. With 12 months usage rights we can look at doubling the deal to $3m. We have plenty of wiggle room for negotiation and can more than comfortably pay percentage out to the wrestlers for the promotional work.

We’ve made $3m and we still have 99.9% of our inventory to play with.

This model can work for any TV content producer turning their clips channels on YouTube into a full sponsorship revenue stream.

For TV content producers there is a huge demand for their content on YouTube, they just need to understand how YouTube content monetization works to be able to take full advantage of it.

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