Article

Did Watcher Make One of the Worst Business Decisions of All Time?

featuredHomenonfiction

In a world where Twitter defends sex-traffickers and YouTube can’t decide whether bestiality is okay, Watcher’s recent controversy is, honestly, fairly lowstakes. Yet, somehow, the internet has decided that this is where they draw the line. So it begs the question: what did Watcher do? And why has it gotten such a negative response?

 

Who is Watcher? (I’ll Do You One Better, Why is Watcher?)

For the unfamiliar, Watcher is a YouTube channel founded in 2019 creating horror and mystery themed shows. Really though, Watcher’s story begins eight years ago, when founders Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara became internet sensations hosting the charmingly underfunded true crime and ghost-hunting show Buzzfeed Unsolved. The show was released by Buzzfeed, a faceless conglomerate well-known for exploiting content creators in the 2010s, and popularising YouTubers like The Try Guys, Safiya Nygaard, and, of course, Shane and Ryan. In the late 2010s these creators, especially those with large fanbases, established their own channels in what can only be described as a mass exodus from Buzzfeed, with the sheer amount of “Why I Left Buzzfeed” videos so ridiculous that the internet made it a running gag.

 

 

This comment on Watcher's recent announcement references this joke, making us wonder: what has gotten this viewer, and the wider internet, outraged enough to accuse Watcher of being as money-hungry and exploitative as the infamous Buzzfeed they fled from?

 

Enough With the Suspense! What did Watcher Do?

In 2019, Buzzfeed Unsolved fans flocked to Shane and Ryan’s new channel and found… no true crime or ghost-hunting. Rather, passion projects like Puppet History and Let Me Tell You a Story, filmed in pandemic conditions, greeted us. We stuck around anyway, and after restrictions lifted in 2023, Shane and Ryan stepped down as co-CEOs, leaving only Steven Lim, the less mentioned third founder of Watcher. Shane and Ryan finally produced a ghost-hunting show, Ghost Files, and a true crime show, Mystery Files, meeting somewhat mixed reviews. Some enjoyed the innovations accompanying Watcher’s skyrocketing production quality, while others criticised the shows as overproduced and boring, compared with Buzzfeed Unsolved’s engaging simplicity.

Then, on the 20th of April 2024, Shane, Ryan and Steven released “Goodbye Youtube”, an ad in a vlog’s clothing announcing their new streaming service, WatcherTV, “affordable to everyone” at $9.30 ($5.99 USD) a month. What a steal! All future uploads would only be on WatcherTV, and they planned to remove all of their currently free videos from YouTube. Their reasoning? TV-quality production wasn’t sustainable for YouTube, so they needed more money.

 

It Was At This Moment Watcher Knew—They’d Fucked Up

Fan response was immediate and devastating. On the first day Watcher lost 500,000 subscribers, with a further 1.3 million leaving over the next three weeks. From saying “everyone and anyone” could afford the subscription (they absolutely can not), to claiming that leaving YouTube and removing their content was ‘necessary’ (you could just downsize?), there was much in Watcher’s announcement video to incite outrage—and outrage there was. Some felt Watcher was sacrificing its fanbase to keep their over-sized staff or, pessimistically, for greed. And undercurrenting it all was a sense of betrayal, like we’d all somehow been deceived. A viewer said to me:

 

“Between the two big ex-Buzzfeed teams, I was shocked that it was Watcher to have this type of controversy.”

 

Fans have been quick to call out Shane “eat the rich” Madej for his hypocrisy, but the feeling that someone just broke character was not limited to Shane, a commenter saying:

 

 

Some fans have placed blame on Steven as sole-CEO. Perhaps a caricature rich boy with a Tesla corrupting Shane and Ryan is an easier reality to face than one where two friends have lost sight of their ethics. Or were never even our friends to begin with.

For other fans, this video wasn’t out of nowhere, but rather, the culmination of Watcher losing sight of their fanbase in the quest to become ‘proper, Netflix-worthy entertainment.’ Buzzfeed Unsolved was, as Shane has artfully put it, a series of glorified power-point presentations, and certainly would never have succeeded on Netflix. Yet, it was an internet sensation. Buzzfeed Unsolved’s “The Search for the Mysterious Mothman” has (as of 28 May 2024) 15 million views, more than 99.02% of Netflix releases between July 2023 and December 2023 (according to Netflix’s ‘What We Watched’ report). This episode isn’t even one of the more popular, with “Strange Disappearance of D.B. Cooper” clocking 22 million views, more than 99.52% of shows in Netflix’s report. Given Buzzfeed Unsolved’s ‘low quality’ production is easily more popular than most ‘TV-quality’ Netflix shows, maybe Watcher shouldn’t be aiming for ‘Netflix-worthy.’ Watcher has pronounced its new content unsuitable for YouTube, but this commenter responded:

For some, the most painful part wasn’t being thrown aside, but Watcher’s manipulative justification that “we’re doing this to make the content you deserve,” when most of the fanbase has been very clear about their, at best, apathy towards production quality. For Shane and Ryan, whose appeal is their genuine unscripted banter, blatant lies like this are career ending, a commenter saying:

 

Watcher’s Desperate Damage Control

A few hours after, Watcher edited the following comment:

The apparent misconception that Watcher was planning to pull their content from YouTube is rooted in their announcement video when they said:

 

“If you want to see the full seasons of all of our content, WatcherTV will be their exclusive home from May 31st.”

 

Watcher also stated in previous interviews, including one with Variety, that they would “eventually remove all videos from YouTube.” Even if this was a miscommunication, Watcher made a serious misstep addressing it. Rather than admitting their plan was a mistake and backtracking, or even apologising for confusing their fanbase, Watcher essentially said ‘just to clarify, you all misheard us and we’d never do that’, a lack of accountability which just added fuel to fan belief that Watcher was lying to them, a fan commenting:

After a week of silence, The Watcher released another YouTube video entitled “An Update.” In three short minutes, Watcher attempts to undo seven days of fan critique, stating they will keep all previous videos and release all future content on YouTube, with WatcherTV members having access to new releases a month early. They apologised for not showing adequate appreciation for their community and overlooking how WatcherTV would impact their fans.

A fan stated that “An Update” was “one of the more authentic apology videos I’ve seen,” and, given YouTube’s incredibly low bar for apologies, I agree. But watching Steven, Shane and Ryan take turns reading their script, as if they were told ‘apologise or you don’t get ice cream tonight’, I found myself pessimistic. Which begs the question: can audiences trust again after the ‘Shane and Ryan’ illusion has been shattered?

 

YouTube Responds to Watcher

YouTube never wastes a chance at content, so naturally there’s been many videos covering the Watcher backlash, with a variety of clickbait titles (I am indeed throwing rocks from a glass house). As people from these other channels flocked to Watcher’s announcement, an interesting pattern developed—a comment section, first united in condemnation, diverges, with new commenters shocked at Watcher fans’ extreme reactions.

This makes me wonder: if a viewer is not at fault for stopping a TV show two episodes in, or complaining about the changing direction of a show, why are they at fault for disengaging with a YouTuber? Do content creators have a duty to their fanbase, or do fanbases have a duty to creators? It seems these answers are negotiated and renegotiated between channels and their fans, with Watcher’s viewers having a far harsher answer than some other audiences. What is it about Watcher’s audience that made their decision unforgivable?

 

 

This commenter suggests that Watcher, from mocking Buzzfeed to mocking politicians, shot itself in the foot by producing a critical audience. Watcher thrived on in-jokes and memes catering to an audience familiar with, and possibly raised by YouTube. An audience that has had, probably at least two of their childhood creators revealed as sex-offenders or racists or serial cannibals. Needless to say, they’ve seen this before, and will not be caught unaware again.

So, did Watcher make one of the worst business decisions of all time? Probably not, but for Watcher’s audience? It’s like if David Attenborough, having raised a following starkly opposed to the meat industry, then opened a steakhouse: while some YouTubers could undoubtedly make this move, and have, like Dropout.tv, Watcher’s audience is strongly against money-grabbing business moves.

When watching creators, we engage in the collective delusion that what we see is ‘real’. When Shane says “eat the rich” we don’t think he is an actor performing a character, but that he, as a person, is anti-capitalist. But when a creator shatters that delusion, how can a fanbase piece it back together? Should we piece it back together? Or, after so much disappointment, are we finally fatigued with parasocial relationships, and seek another way?

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024

EDITION ONE 2024 'INDIE SLEAZE' AVAILABLE NOW!

It’s 2012 and you have just opened Tumblr. A photo pops up of MGMT in skinny jeans, teashade sunglasses and mismatching blazers that are reminiscent of carpets and ‘60s curtains. Alexa Chung and Alex Turner have just broken up. His love letter has been leaked and Tumblr is raving about it—”my mouth hasn’t shut up about you since you kissed it.” Poetry at its peak: romance is alive.

Read online