While Hollywood Squabbles About Race, YouTube Has #NoFilter on Diversity

/ Jan 26, 2016

Lilly Singh Creator of the Year

The lack of people of color nominated for Oscars this year has pundits around globe weighing in on the lack of diversity in Hollywood. But little to nothing has been said about the refreshing abundance of diversity in the social video space that is transforming show business and upending traditional notions of celebrity.

As others have pointed out, in the film and TV world, diversity is dictated from the top down by executives who greenlight the projects and the writers and the producers they hire to craft the stories. They’re working with a set of economic truisms that may or may not be true, as well as a natural instinct to be drawn to stories that they can identify with. And, no matter what their color, writers, producers and execs carry with them a collection of prejudices about race and everything else, some more nefarious than others.

This means we are left with content that largely reflects the inhabitants of show business executive suites, which tend to be white males. These execs also tend to be lawyers, MBAs and/or sociopaths, but that’s another topic.

In the social video space, individual users greenlight their own no-budget projects, and they’re surfaced organically, without corporate sponsorship or promotion, by the fans. By the time the show business machinery gets its claws on the creators, they are already stars with fully-developed personas and massive followings.

The differences don’t end there.

In traditional show business, racial diversity is usually discussed in terms of black and white, literally, and sometimes Latinos. Occasionally, Asians and Arabs are mentioned, but that’s about as far as it goes in terms of the diversity of the diversity discussion.

Three of the biggest stars on YouTube – Michelle Phan (more than 8.32M subscribers and 1.22B views), Lilly Singh (a.k.a IISuperwomanII; more than 7.73M subscribers and 1B views) and Yousef Saleh Erakat (a.k.a. FouseyTube; more than 8M subscribers and 1B views), are Vietnamese-American, Indo-Canadian and Palestinian-American, respectively. They succeeded because of their talent, to be sure, but it didn’t hurt that there were underserved audiences out there, hungry to see people who looked like them and shared similar backgrounds.

SusanneDanielsThe unique diversity of the platform was not lost on Susanne Daniels (pictured, left) when she left her post as president of programming of MTV to become VP of YouTube Originals last July.

“In addition to the influence YouTube has, I joined the company because I saw an ecosystem full of diversity,” Daniels told the crowd at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday night as she introduced a preview of the first batch of original content for the new YouTube Red subscription service. “There are diverse faces and a broad range of genres. Everything from scripted content, unscripted, comedies, sketch shows, shorts and documentaries. Anything you want, you can find on YouTube and there’s no one recipe to create something that’s going to resonate with viewers.”

One of the three YouTube Red originals previewed by Daniels at Sundance was Singh’s documentary “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” produced by Astronauts Wanted, about her world tour last summer that took her to such far-flung locales such as India, Singapore and Trinidad.

According to Singh, the content she creates is not specifically geared towards South Asians and Indians.

“I mean, yeah, my parent characters have Indian accents, but the jokes are universal; the content is universal,” Singh told VideoInk during the interview for her Creator of the Year profile in December. “I think the best thing I’m doing is I’m trying to be as successful as I can be in what I do, and I’m trying to normalize the idea of someone who looks like me being on billboards and being on magazines and being on these popularity lists.”

As we noted in her Creator of the Year profile, the significance of what Singh is doing, intentionally or otherwise, is not lost on the South Asian fans who turn out in large numbers for her appearances at events such as YouTube’s Fan Meetup in New York last April.

For industryites who still view creators like Singh – who guested on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” last week – Phan and FouseyTube as niche players on a niche platform, Daniels has some statistics to put things in perspective.

“Before joining YouTube three months ago, I was running programming at MTV, where the largest number of people we reached with a series was three million, and a highlight was eight million for the Music Video Awards,” Daniels told the crowd at Sundance. “Now I’m at YouTube, where we reach over 1 billion people every single month.”

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