The Difference Between A YouTube Documentary & A YouTube Docuseries
A YouTube docuseries is a relatively new video format in which documentary-style videos are released in parts—whether by episodes, chapters, or series—by a YouTube creator. While traditional documentary films are aplenty, YouTube docuseries have only recently graced the digital video landscape, but show promise of drastically changing the space.
Feature-length documentaries (such as Magnolia Pictures’, Blackfish) have been available to rent or stream on YouTube for many years, whereas YouTube docuseries are somewhat of a novelty. As opposed to a documentary movie, docuseries by definition comprise several parts that creators release in segments. YouTube is the primary distributor of these docuseries—feature documentaries are often found in theaters and on other streaming networks—and the influencer or creator channel is a vital component of the series production.
YouTube, once the go-to video-sharing platform for viral, short-form videos, has evolved radically since its creation in 2005. As YouTube creators have grown more ambitious in monetizing their content amidst YouTube’s fickle algorithm, they’ve been uploading longer and longer videos.
This comes in response to YouTube’s changing policies regarding its all-important ad program and the resulting criterion for producers to generate revenue and reap its rewards. Channels are eligible for ad revenue only once they have surpassed 1,000 subscribers and reached 4,000 hours of watch time within the past year. Further, a Pew Research Center analysis supports the theory that YouTube discreetly favors longer form content.
Thus, in the face of tightening monetization rules and progressively longer video durations being rewarded, top YouTubers are eschewing the traditional pursuit of racking up views, instead opting for more hours watched to garner more “meaningful” views.
While generally long-form videos may seem the logical solution to outwitting YouTube’s algorithm, docuseries, in particular, have developed a formidable presence. YouTube docuseries—a lengthier, more personal, and investigative format often presenting a behind-the-scenes look at popular personalities—have surged in popularity, pulling in millions of views from admiring fans. In the second week of January 2019, Google search interest in “docuseries” skyrocketed nearly 10X its previous high.
The popularity of YouTube docuseries increasingly shows that viewers are overwhelmingly receptive to longer content and that viewer retention is higher. In fact, such is the mass appeal of this format that brands and advertisers are eager to get in on some of the most engaged audiences YouTube has to offer.
One particular YouTube veteran is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the rise of the YouTube docuseries and the subsequent platform changes. Meet Shane Dawson—mastermind of investigative video series on YouTube.
Shane Dawson will be a familiar name to many, having started his YouTube channel the same year it was launched. Since then, he has kept pace and built a loyal fan base, recently surpassing 20 million subscribers.
For the majority of his YouTube career, Dawson has focused on frequent, vlog-style videos. However, his recent foray into investigative YouTube docuseries, beginning with an examination of the ill-fated TanaCon last summer, was so successful that he has since shifted to the docuseries format almost exclusively.
Dawson Conspiracy Theory Docuseries Becomes Instantly Popular
In mid-January 2019, he dropped a trailer for his highly anticipated two-part Conspiracy Series, with Part 1 releasing on January 30, 2019. Interestingly, his teaser video came just days before YouTube confirmed it will recommend fewer videos about conspiracy theories, noting that the shift will apply to less than 1% of YouTube content. Early on in Part 1 of Dawson’s conspiracy theory docuseries, Shane confirms, “…these are all just theories—none of them facts—and they’re not meant to hurt anyone, or any company, or any Zepetos…”
Docuseries Excluded From YouTube Trending: Fans Discuss
A day after release, viewers took to the comments section to express dismay that Dawson’s video wasn’t featured in YouTube’s Trending feed, despite accumulating 8.6 million views and more than 227,000 comments in just 17 hours.
Other commenters noted the absence of YouTube subscriber notifications when Dawson’s video went live, leaving many to speculate that the YouTube algorithm did, in fact, affect his conspiracy content. A recent report confirms that Dawson’s video was erroneously demonetized when initially uploaded, but not because it contained conspiracy content. YouTube admitted the mistake, one that likely resulted in a loss of thousands in ad revenue for Dawson. Regardless, his video had no trouble finding its way to the eyes of millions in less than a day.
Nearly every previous docuseries episode released by Dawson has racked up more than 15 million views. Considering the length of the episodes, many of them 40 minutes or longer and one over 50 minutes, the viewing figures are astounding.
Shane Dawson managed to transform YouTube culture by popularlizing the docuseries format. To put in perspective, below is a list of Shane Dawson’s lauded docuseries:
The Truth About TanaCon
The Secret World Of Jeffree Star
The Mind Of Jake Paul
Typically, Dawson’s docuseries provide his fans with a no-holds-barred approach to his subject. He gives fans intimate insights into other YouTubers’ lives, relationships, and work. The docuseries have achieved enormous success and popularity, likely due to his investigative spotlight on prominent YouTubers.
His first docuseries was a three-part series on YouTuber Tana Mongeau, whose rival convention to VidCon ended in disaster last summer. Something of a gamble at the time considering the success of his vlogs, Dawson’s TanaCon series drew instant attention, with a combined 49 million views—a resounding endorsement from his fans for this new type of format at the time.
Dawson followed this act with a five-part series on beauty YouTuber Jeffree Star, doubling down with more episodes and maintaining longer run-times. The reward was significant, with parts 1-3 becoming his most-viewed docuseries uploads. In September 2018, Dawson probed the mind of popular YouTuber, Jake Paul, again increasing the episode count. The eight total parts pulled in on average over 19 million views and were also notable for featuring his brand partnership with Honey.
His newest series on conspiracies, a subject which has long proved popular for him, created intense excitement amongst his more than 20 million subscribers. The nearly two-hour-long video achieved more than 1,000 views and 50,593 comments in the first 10 minutes. Within 30 minutes following its release, the video had racked up 14,751 views and 77,144 comments. After 45 minutes, the video tallied 399,497 views and 86,705 comments. And finally, after a full hour fresh on Dawson’s channel, the video generated nearly half a million (491,641) views and almost 100,000 (97,868) comments.
The beginning of the video prominently features an ongoing brand partnership with discount code app, Honey, which he also notes in the video description. His Conspiracy Series marks a departure from docuseries centered on one specific personality.
With well over 100 million views of all YouTube docuseries combined since starting last summer, the reception of Dawson’s content has been unquestionably positive—even with polarizing figures and topics as his subjects. It’s worth noting that Dawson has a particularly ardent support base garnered over many years of his YouTube career, providing him with a priceless audience willing to invest more time in his long-form content. The proof is in the pudding.
Ariana Grande needs no introduction. What may be news, however, is that her YouTube channel is one of the most followed in the world at 31 million subscribers. Since establishing the channel back in 2007, it has accrued mass popularity, and most frequently uploads behind-the-scenes videos and bloopers for her music videos.
Grande has dabbled in the docuseries arena, seeking to present fans an unguarded, behind-the-scenes look at her Dangerous Woman Tour in 2017. Producing a docuseries for the tour makes perfect sense considering the size of her YouTube fan base and the opportunity to broadcast directly to her most avid supporters. The docuseries was presented in four episodes, each between 25-40 minutes long:
The episodic videos were released exclusively for YouTube Premium members—a paid-for subscription service—from the get-go, with only the first episode available for free initially, and staggered free releases of the episodes in the succeeding weeks. While this first episode logged nearly 15 million views, it also attracted some criticism from fans unwilling to pay to see the rest of the series at launch.
The remaining episodes have since been made free to view, though the viewing figures have been hidden. The comments for the first episode numbered nearly 15,000, while the remaining episodes averaged just over 2,300, a percentage decrease of 85%, which comparatively would suggest a smaller viewership of around 2 million for the other three episodes.
There’s no doubt that the docuseries format has been a triumphant venture for Shane Dawson and Ariana Grande, with both releasing long-form videos—historically a niche on YouTube—to immediate viewerships in the millions.
Audiences have consistently shown they will engage with content creators who upload material that interests them, often regardless of length (Dawson’s most popular docuseries episode was also one of his longest). And collaborations with other YouTube creators willing to be open and personal in a BTS environment is evidently an attractive proposition for fans, as is Grande’s insight into her tour “diaries.” As for Dawson’s “conspiracy” content, YouTube’s algorithm does not appear to have had an impact on viewing metrics.
With YouTube’s algorithm changing the way creators approach their content and favoring videos in the 20-minute-plus range, it’s encouraging to see YouTubers employing lengthier formats and their fans embracing them. The willingness of fans to spend more time watching lengthy docuseries-style videos is a ringing endorsement of YouTube’s decision to steer people in the direction of longer videos and larger ad revenues.