How YouTube beat Netflix to become the world’s biggest TV channel

Chloe Burrows, star of YouTube's hit reality show Inside
Chloe Burrows, star of YouTube's hit reality show Inside

Before the launch of Love Island’s 11th series last Monday, ITV proudly said it was ready “to set the nation’s screens ablaze for another scorching summer” as Maya Jama and 13 singletons jetted off to Mallorca. “The hit show continues to burn bright,” the broadcaster crowed.

Yet a brand-new reality show launched the previous day that put Love Island in the shade – and should have ITV and its ilk very worried..

If you have not watched Inside, the YouTube hit created by the Sidemen collective, any teenager you know will have. Combining elements of Big Brother, Love Island and Jasper Carrott’s much-missed game show Golden Balls, Inside proved itself to be an instant sensation. Ten influencers – such as TikTok stars and erstwhile Made in Chelsea cast members – were locked away in a warehouse near London Bridge for a week, competing in challenges to claim a prize pot of up to £1 million.

Since launching, the first episode of the new Love Island series has had 3 million viewers; Inside’s debut the night before has been watched almost 12 million times. The figures are not directly comparable – ITV figures are an average across the whole programme of UK viewers; YouTube views are global and counted after a couple of minutes – but they will put both traditional broadcasters and streaming services on alert. YouTube has quietly become the world’s biggest TV channel, seemingly without anybody noticing. To make another contrast: Netflix’s runaway hit Baby Reindeer had almost 60 million views in its first month. Inside will probably breach that number this week.

The sheer size of YouTube, which was bought by Google in 2006, is often overlooked. Its users, whether professionals, semi-pros or amateurs, upload about 500 hours’ worth of content every minute. As smart TVs continue to be adopted, YouTube is being watched much more, and is the most-watched platform on the devices, ahead even of Netflix.

Almost everybody in the UK uses YouTube and it reaches more than 90 per cent of people in every age group, according to media consultancy Enders Analysis. Every other big website, from the BBC to TikTok, either skews older or younger. The average British YouTube user spends about 20 hours a month on the site and it is estimated to earn the same from advertising in the UK, almost £2 billion, as ITV.

People around the world spend a combined one billion hours each day watching YouTube videos on their TVs. For the past year, YouTube has been the most-watched streaming service in America, with 8.6 per cent of viewing on TV screens, ahead of Netflix on 7.9 per cent.

Laurence Olivier in The World At War, free to watch on YouTube
Laurence Olivier in The World At War, free to watch on YouTube - Fremantle

YouTube combines high and low culture unlike any other place, online or otherwise. The simple animated nursery rhymes of CocoMelon (176 million subscribers) have become a favourite of babies and children around the world; the National Gallery uploaded a half-hour talk about three Caravaggio paintings seen by two million people (four million visited the physical gallery last year); Norwegian third division football has many more adherents outside Scandinavia because of YouTube.

All episodes of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and The World at War, the Laurence Olivier-narrated documentary epic, are on the site. Not forgetting the gaming, how-to and music videos that were the backbone of YouTube in its early years and continue to be wildly popular. All of it is free to watch.

The Sidemen, a group of seven British friends who came together in 2013, made a name for themselves on YouTube by making wildly popular uploads of everything from playing video games to pranks to celebrity interviews. Their best-known member is Olajide “JJ” Olatunji, aka rapper and sometime professional boxer KSI. Between them they have almost 150 million subscribers.

The children's series CocoMelon, which has 176 million subscribers on YouTube
The children's series CocoMelon, which has 176 million subscribers on YouTube - Alamy

It is reality TV programmes, previously the bread-and-butter of commercial broadcasters, that is powering YouTube forward. The Sidemen have previously made their own versions of Michael McIntyre’s The Wheel and The Chase, but Inside was their most ambitious project yet with high production values and about 50 people working on the show around-the-clock.

The challenges on Inside included a game of dodgeball, hitting each other in the face with tortillas and I’m A Celebrity-style eating challenges to devour confections such as fermented eggs and blue cheese smoothies. Successfully completing the tasks added money to the prize pot; failure meant it was depleted.

Reality shows are nothing new, of course. Big Brother, Survivor and Pop Idol became global hits in the 1990s that dominated TV schedules and tabloids alike. But as traditional TV viewing declines – especially among millennials and Gen Z – it has successfully found a new, if slightly less glossy, home.

“It’s not the formats that are the problem, it’s where you’re distributing them,” says Jordan Schwarzenberger, manager of the Sidemen. “The concepts are great, but you’re putting them into the abyss when there’s no one under the age of 50 watching.”

The biggest YouTuber in the world is a reality producer. MrBeast, aka North Carolina’s Jimmy Donaldson, has 278 million subscribers (more than Netflix’s 269 million) and has become a phenomenon with his slick adventure and challenge videos. Shortly after Squid Game became a huge Netflix hit in September 2021, within two months Donaldson created his own version of the Korean game show with a real-life $456,000 cash prize. His bootleg version has been viewed 620 million times, many more than Netflix’s own reality version that premiered two years later.

Donaldson’s success illustrates why YouTube is the ideal platform for ambitious video creators. “They can move much quicker and more freely than their TV equivalents,” says Liam Chivers, founder of the OP Talent social media performer agency. “There’s less red tape and scheduling delays, there’s no competition for other shows on their channels, it’s just their content. That, allied to the viral and always-on nature of social media and YouTube, is a perfect place for this sort of content.”

So, how worried should traditional broadcasters be by the growth of Google’s juggernaut? “Extremely,” says Tom Harrington, head of TV at Enders. “And not just the linear broadcasters, but the streamers as well. All TV is declining because of YouTube. Everything is under threat from YouTube.”

Harrington adds: “A massive proportion of TV is a famous person walking around on their holidays. Think of how many videos on YouTube now are just other people walking around on holidays, going to restaurants and looking at things — that lifestyle viewing.”

Running for cover: ITV's Love Island
Running for cover: ITV's Love Island - ITV

Ominously for the broadcasters and streamers, it has become a huge programming provider in America with its YouTube TV subscription service ($73 a month, or £57) that bundles cable channels together as millions on the other side of the Atlantic cancel their traditional TV subscriptions. It is also the exclusive home of some NFL games under a seven-year, $14 billion deal.

YouTube has been experimenting in recent years with growing beyond its core users who make homespun videos. It commissioned programmes called YouTube Originals, including one from the Sidemen themselves, but wound that down in January 2022 to allow more organic videos to come up.

The one area YouTube is yet to crack is scripted drama, another focus of the old Originals strand. However, the likes of the Sidemen are not going to go down that path. “I’m not sure there is a place for that. I still think that high-end scripted shows will still live on TV,” says George Cowin, a producer of Inside. “It’s just too expensive to make for social media; in the time that you can make a short film you can make a whole reality show. It doesn’t really make sense.”

At least that is something for traditional broadcasters to hold onto.