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The weird reporting of YouTube stats

Here’s a paragraph from a recent New York Times article on Susan Wojcicki and YouTube:

Smosh, a pair of 20-something lip-syncing comedians, have roughly 30 million subscribers to their various YouTube channels. PewDiePie, a 24-year-old Swede who provides humorous commentary while he plays video games, has a following of similar size. The list goes on and on. For the sake of perspective, successful network television shows like “NCIS: New Orleans” or “The Big Bang Theory” average a little more than half that in weekly viewership.

My problem? – Why does any reporter try to compare YouTube subscriber numbers with actual television viewer numbers??

To be fair, the author does mention this several paragraphs later:

But advertising on YouTube isn’t like advertising on television. Subscribers don’t translate neatly into viewers.

But that is a woeful understatement.  YouTube subscribers have simply pressed a button once.  TV weekly viewership actually has watched the content.

I just logged into my own YouTube account and saw that I’ve subscribed to 115 different channels, everything from TED Talks to the America’s Cup to CGP Grey (who’s awesome!) to Matthias Wandel’s woodworking channel.  I rarely watch the vast majority of the videos from any of these channels.  The exception would probably be CGP Grey, who’s videos are so awesome that I set e-mail reminders to make sure I don’t miss them.  So me being counted as a “subscriber” for any of them is essentially meaningless… a vanity metric.

So what’s my point?  Beware YouTube subscription numbers, especially when they’re being compared to TV viewers.  What’s the best comparison?  Actual views of video content…  It’s definitely not easy to make that comparison, but whoever said life (and journalism) was supposed to be easy?