Winter Has Come for TV Advertising: YouTubers Are Getting More Viewers Than 'Game of Thrones'

Westeros is kind of like the advertising world.

Daenerys looks worried. (Screengrab: HBO)
Daenerys looks worried. (Screengrab: HBO)

Last night’s “The Children” was the season four finale of Games of Thrones, and though the numbers aren’t in yet, it’s clear that millions of viewers tuned in—and then turned to the internet, as they have throughout the season, to cheer, bemoan, recap, celebrate, and even remake the events of each episode.

Everyone knows Game of Thrones is hugely popular. What may be surprising is many YouTubers are generating more views than the popular series. Creators across platforms, and on YouTube in particular, are quickly reaching the same scale and viewership, without the marketing and multi-million dollar budgets.

For example, this season’s premiere episode of Game of Thrones, was “the most-watched episode of any HBO series since the 2007 series finale of The Sopranos attracted 11.9 million viewers.” The episode was seen by 6.6 million viewers at its 9 p.m. time slot, and then generated an additional 1.6 million viewers at its 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. replays, for a total of 8.2 million viewers.

The inhabitants of Westeros face an uncertain future — winter is coming, and many claimants are vying for the Iron Throne. The world of advertising is in flux as well: TV audiences are fractured, and the rise of YouTube has captured the mindshare and eyeballs of younger viewers. In the game of thrones in Westeros, the players win or die. The stakes aren’t quite that dire in the world of advertising—failure in the world of marketing rarely leads to beheading—but businesses which want to succeed need to pay attention to the way the wind is blowing.

While Game of Thrones managed to generate 8.2 million views of their season 4 premiere, 10 YouTubers generated more views than Game of Thrones across one of their channels that same week, with several generating over twice as many views. Among the leaders of that pack were the European tour de force PewDiePie, The Fine Brothers of ‘kids react’ fame, Smosh, HolaSoyGerman, ElRubiusOMG, BFvsGF, TobyGames, Nigahiga, HikakinTV, and Good Mythical Morning. It’s worth noting that these creators have multiple channels not counted here, which would account for millions of additional views each month.

Regardless, it’s not perfectly apples to apples: Game of Thrones undoubtedly generates more viewers than the reported 8.2 million views when you account for HBO GO, video on demand, and illegal downloads, and YouTubers tend to produce content which is much more bite-sized than an hourlong drama. Nonetheless, the size and the dedication of the audience is comparable, although, its important to keep in mind that HBO is a cable network people have to pay for, whereas on YouTube viewers are watching for free.

Oftentimes massive video numbers are perceived as major outliers, the exception to the rule. That the success of a few viral videos such as Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ are the outliers, and no real threat to traditional media. While its true not many videos generate a billion views, it is not uncommon for a popular YouTuber to generate tens of millions of views within a week or month. In fact, according to data from socialblade, well over 500 channels are regularly generating at least 15 million views per month.

These channels run by YouTubers are celebrities to young people today. As I’ve said before the Phil Defrancos, Charles Trippys, and Tyler Oakleys are this generation’s Jon Stewart, Mark Hoppus, and Neil Patrick Harris’. These are the individuals younger viewers watch for their news, music, and pop culture entertainment.

This ‘new normal’ is a threat to TV as an advertising medium, and an opportunity for advertisers looking to scale their audience’s reach and influence.

In the YouTube era, you have to wonder: is a 30 second spot really worth it?

Advertising on TV is expensive. Game of Thrones is the exception, because its on HBO there are no ads, however a 30 second prime time commercial spot on a network like Fox will set advertisers back $188,974 dollars. The numbers of potential viewers you would reach during this commercial can be skewed, with many viewers using digital recorders to fast-forward through ads, or using commercial breaks to walk away for a snack. As a result, the level of audience engagement with TV commercials is declining and becoming increasingly fickle.

TV was once considered a reliable marketing tool but that’s changing. Even live sports, which has long been considered a safe from audience erosion, is proving to be inconsistent in pulling in viewers. In fast, according to Nielsen, absolutely no one tuned in to watch a Houston Astros game last September. Advertisers may as well have thrown their money straight through the Moon Door.

Younger consumers are hardly watching TV anyway. YouTube reaches more 18-34 year-olds than any cable network and six times more than any of the  top five full episode players (Hulu, ABC, NBC, CBS & Fox). This is just the tip of the iceberg for YouTube, since its audience continues to grow rapidly. In fact, the number of people subscribing daily is up more than three times since last year, and the number of daily subscriptions is up more than four times since last year.

YouTube also has a greater influence on driving sales. According to a recent study, YouTube has an average of 17% greater impact on purchase intent than TV among millennials across beauty, automotive, and smartphone categories. And, in stark contrast to production costs for television, producing a YouTube video can cost barely more than pocket change. On top of that running the ads on YouTube are exponentially cheaper.

I talked about Moore’s Law in a previous post—how everything is getting faster, smaller and cheaper. You don’t need millions of dollars and a TV network to be successful with online video like everyone tends to think. All one really needs is an iPhone and YouTube to get started. Bentley, the auto company which markets to the Lannisters of the modern world, shot their most recent commercial with an iPhone 5s. The barrier to entry is the lowest it has ever been and will continue to get lower.

Often, a show or movie becomes popular because of the way it reflects something in the larger culture, providing a safe imaginary space for us to work through our fears. In the case of Game of Thrones, I think we see a reflection of the uncertainty many people feel about the world. During the first season, Ned Stark was set up to be the hero. Viewers who hadn’t read the books were shocked when he was beheaded near the end of the first season; it upended the standard fantasy narrative and proved that in this world, no one would be safe.

In Westeros, the swiftly changing landscape of power is a problem. In the world of advertising, it’s an opportunity.

Unfortunately, it’s an opportunity many brands are missing. I can sympathize with Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch, who keep sending ravens to King’s Landing about the impending White Walkers and Wildlings, only to have their warnings ignored; many brands just don’t seem to get the message about how important it is to be not only active on the YouTube platform, but effective.

In Westeros, we keep hearing the refrain, “winter is coming.” In advertising, we keep hearing the refrain “the future is digital.” The reality is, it’s already here.


Brendan Gahan (@brendangahan) is a YouTube expert helping Fortune 500 brands with their YouTube influencer and community building campaigns. He was named Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing & Advertising and one of the 25 Top YouTube Business Power Players for 2013.


Winter Has Come for TV Advertising: YouTubers Are Getting More Viewers Than 'Game of Thrones'