This story originally appeared in Saturday’s edition of The Washington Post:
Catch Kevin Wu’s latest comedy program on YouTube, and you might think he’s nothing more than a young Asian American talking to a camera in his bedroom. But almost each of his shows command at least 2 million views — rivaling the nightly TV audiences of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
A disproportionate share of YouTube’s top personalities are minorities, a striking contrast to the most popular shows on mainstream television, where the stars are largely white. These minority-produced, home-grown shows are drawing massive audiences — the top one has 5.2 million subscribers — enough to attract the attention of major advertisers.
On Wu’s videos, ads for Mazda and Toyota pop up. Michelle Phan, a Vietnamese American beauty guru, who ranks 20th among YouTube’s most popular channels, has become a spokeswoman for Lancome. YouTube declined to reveal how much such producers earn, but it says hundreds of them make at least six figures annually.
“A lot of U.S. marketers are leaving minority audiences on the table,” said Seneca Mudd, the director of industry initiatives at the Interactive Advertising Bureau. “Advertisers would ignore that trend at their own peril.”
Among the 20 most-subscribed-to channels on YouTube, eight feature minorities. Most are Asian American. Many more black and Latino shows populate the top 50. These producers are also finding an audience that has been largely neglected by Hollywood. Nearly 80 percent of minorities regularly watch online videos, compared with less than 70 percent of whites, the Pew Internet & American Life Project says.
Wu, who ranks 11th among YouTube channels, said he does not intentionally target Asian American issues. But those viewers more easily understand his jokes on dating, stereotypes and the generational clash between parents and kids, he said. “I just tell my stories honestly, and usually Asian Americans will relate to me because they say, ‘That’s how I am and with my parents,’ ” he said.
Added Phan: “If you look at mainstream media, there aren’t many Asian Americans. But it’s also shown non-Asians that they’re not that different from a girl with a different skin tone and a different background.”
Analysts say the trend of minority content on YouTube makes sense. Networks feel pressure to appeal to a broader audience, but Internet video can thrive by just targeting niches because the cost of producing a show is so low, said David Bushman, television curator for the Paley Center for Media.
But the audience for shows like those of Wu and Phan extends beyond their niche. The viewership numbers are eye-popping. Ryan Higa, a Japanese American comedian, has 5.2 million subscribers, second among all YouTube channels, according to the company. In total, his videos have been viewed 1.1 billion times.
Wu has 2.3 million subscribers, but often many more than that watch individual shows. While precise numbers are not available, a large majority of his users live in the United States, YouTube says. The same is true of other minority content producers.
Other analysts note that these figures cannot be neatly compared with Nielsen television ratings, which measure the U.S. audience tuning in to programs on the day they air, both live and on DVR.
Still, the growing popularity of online video — and the time it is taking away from other types of media — is turning heads in traditional studios, experts say.
For minorities, the medium offers a way to push back against stereotypes on network television, said Maureen Guthman, the head of brand strategy and acquisitions for the African American-focused channel TV One. Blacks can present themselves “completely unfiltered and without [someone] telling us, ‘You’ve got to be more this’ or ‘You’ve got to be more that,’ ” she said.
Although much of what’s on YouTube is raw, the production behind some of the shows is growing more sophisticated. Tutele, a popular Hispanic American channel, was launched by Maker Studios, a company with 70 million subscribers over 400 YouTube channels. Maker, which is also behind YouTube’s biggest hit, Ray William Johnson, also recently snagged former Disney vice president Chris Williams to be its chief programming officer.
“The Internet is moving so quickly in many directions that it’s hard to predict,” Guthman said. “I see some sort of merging” between online video and traditional television, she said.
It’s too early to say how this will play out, but a shift is coming, said Forrester analyst James McQuivey. Future content producers might choose to bypass the networks altogether, for instance, because they can go to advertisers directly with proof that there’s a demand for their content, he said.
“That may not be the case when you’re Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams, but what about the next J.J. Abrams?” he said. “Will that person ever do a network television deal? I don’t think so.”
Regardless of the future of television, McQuivey said, the trend of minorities on online video is welcome.
“There’s a thriving opportunity for any of these groups to see a rise of content targeted at them from their own people,” he said, “and that will be a great thing.”