YouTube is a haven for a democratic media market, where independence and risky ideas could be shown, and where producers of color can shine. Still, why are so few doing so? For sure, YouTube is a place where independent voices can be recognized.
Some production companies that make content for YouTube have A-List Hollywood connections and budgets; some others want to, and list almost enough above-the-line crew to resemble that; still others have ambitions that are independent and riskier.
Until a generation ago, aspiring media makers went to film schools for formal training. Some people called them the film school generation.
I discovered the draw of professional-grade YouTube videos when I spontaneously clicked on “FunEmployed” from Wong Fu Productions, in Pasadena, CA.
Now, a shining few make their livings and their dreams come true on YouTube, and make it seem easy! YouTube, all of seven-years-old is the best known place to “broadcast yourself.” That’s their tagline. The latest New York Times feature, “On YouTube, Amateur is the New Pro,” about YouTube’s growth, indicates that a few are making big money, while others who find inspiration in them, are trying to make sense of it and make enough to live on their own creativity and ingenuity.
But as with the politics and biases of traditional media productions, it’s harder if you’re note white. Prof. Aymar Christian, at Northwestern University, has a blog provides a list of programs by creators of color, particularly Latinos and blacks. Each is a long list. But there are complications. First, he deems few of them to be worth watching, and second, few of the teams that produce the series have recent or new content. Truly, several of the series or short films are at least 18-months-old.
Some of the successes are “Awkward Black Girl,” and “Fly Guys,” but these programs provide a narrow range of images similar to that, which viewers find in the traditional media.
YouTube is one of the proven, least costly and most accessible distribution channels. Some people also use Vimeo and DailyMotion. YouTube also incubates talent and inspires the next generation. A question remains. A pivotal one: why aren’t there more creators of color, those who take risks? A change in technology and distribution methods does not mean increased ethnic diversity in the videos.
Asians are represented. With Wong Fu Productions, Ryan Higa and KevJumba, at least one slice of that tremendously diverse group is covered. Wong Fu has nearly 200-million views, and more than 1-million subscribers. And Mr. Higa more than 1-billion views and more than 5-million subscribers.
What about other, browner minorities’ stories? A harsh economic reality, in regard to programming for small or niche audiences, according to Prof. Christian, is that “there’s not much money in web media generally, and even less for content geared toward minority audiences.” With ever more productions, viewers’ standards raise the bar to a similarly demanding level. If you’re a minority producer, good won’t cut it. Your work has to be great, as often as possible.
But Prof. Christian says, “most of the inequalities we see in traditional media are replicated online, particularly with regard to race. From film students to advertising executives, most people in the industry are white” and men. “Still,” he says, “there’s a great diversity in production. …Black audiences have Issa Rae” the woman behind ‘Awkward Black Girl’ “and Al Thompson. Latinos have the creators of ‘East WillyB.’ And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” In the end, in terms of durability and critical acclaim, entertainment history has proven that distinctiveness wins out. If you think about it, ethnic diversity is one side of that complex artistic prism.
Another question pops up, though, when you remember that most of the videos on YouTube seem to come from amateur producers who just have too much time on their hands. The title of that New York Times feature story clearly emphasizes amateurs.
Furthermore, according to that same story, “with or without Hollywood, it’s getting tougher to break through to YouTube stardom and become the next Phil DeFranco. …Perhaps inevitably, the weird originality gets harder to maintain as new aspirants try to replicate what is already popular.”
One YouTube producer and star, Matt Sloan, made a related point on the “Director’s Cut” program from Wisconsin Public Television in 2010. He is a co-creator of and actor in the “Chad Vader” series from Blame Society Productions. “I think a lot of people think that you have to make something that appeals to the masses. That’s not true; you have to make something that appeals to yourself. It’s gonna be unexpected, personal and interesting to watch,” Sloan said.
That idea is not news unless, of course, you’re young enough that…it is. As is often the case, youth rules.
I regret that, after having contacted the people at Wong Fu Productions, Blame Society Productions and Sweet Irony Productions (begun by Jaleel White), none responded in time to press publish.