Over the past few years, legacy print magazine Motor Trend has built up a sizable and enviable digital video operation, including 5.6 million YouTube subscribers and an ambitious on demand video network. But earlier this week, in another sign of YouTube’s fading relevance to publishers and the increasing revenue crunch for video creators there, Motor Trend announced its video future will be on its own website, not YouTube.
In short, new episodes of Motor Trend’s various shows—Roadkill, Ignition, Head2Head and more—will be viewable, for free with ads for eight weeks, on MotorTrend.com. Or you can subscribe to an ad-free service there for a reasonable $4.99 a month and get more perks. Motor Trend’s YouTube is sticking around, but just for teasers, cut down episodes and promos. Basically, Motor Trend’s doubling down on hosting its videos on its own site and on its paid subscriber service, not YouTube.
Here’s the announcement:
YouTube’s normally reasonable, level-headed comments have been turned off, as have the like and dislike buttons, while viewers adjust to these changes. And across the internet, a lot of people are unhappy—there’s quite a bit of displeasure expressed on this r/cars thread, to give just one example.
And here’s what Roadkill host David Freiburger said about the move on his Facebook page, which elaborates more on these changes:
As you react to this news, please separate your feelings about company decisions from your comments about us hosts. Personally, I’m sad that Roadkill will no longer be available to those of you who can not afford a subscription—especially the kids who we’ve inspired to become car people. However, we hosts and producers still love what we do and we are lucky to do it and we want to continue making great shows. The best message you can send is to keep the original Motor Trend shows on top by continuing to watch on MotorTrend.com, even if you do it for free.
I can’t say I have a ton of love for Motor Trend myself (though I think we can all agree Roadkill is one of the few good things on the internet) and while there may be a lot of angry knee jerk reactions from video fans, I actually get what they’re doing here and why. YouTube sucks, and it’s quickly becoming not sustainable for much beyond a solo-operated gaming channel where the operator just grinds daily.
There are a couple things at work here. First, Motor Trend parent company TEN: The Enthusiast Network was acquired by Discovery Communications last fall, which owns the Discovery Channel, TLC, Velocity and more. It’s pretty apparent the broadcast giant is primarily interested in Motor Trend’s video operations—the Wall Street Journal noted last year that a joint venture with TEN is Discovery’s “first direct-to-consumer video play in the U.S.,” but in the months since, we’ve seen cuts like the discontinuation of European Car and Roadkill’s editorial arm, including its print magazine.
And then there’s YouTube itself, which is notorious for squeezing creators out of revenue, a trend that seems to be getting worse over time. Even with Motor Trend’s videos racking up millions in views, the economics don’t add up, as TEN president Scott Dickey noted to DigiDay just a few months ago:
The decision to launch Motor Trend OnDemand came a little more than two years ago, when Dickey and his colleagues examined Motor Trend’s strong position on YouTube. Its channel had accumulated over 5 million subscribers, and many of its most popular shows, including “Roadkill” and “Head 2 Head,” reliably amassed over 1 million views per episode. Still, ad dollars on YouTube are meager at that size.
“We determined that the YouTube model wasn’t going to be the best outcome for us,” Dickey said.
If you don’t believe me, ask some car people who have made their bones on YouTube, only to find that harder and harder as time goes on. Here’s The Smoking Tire’s Matt Farah and Drew Stearne, ME of Carfection (formerly XCAR) and some others:
Farah’s also someone who has decided to scale back from the volume model of YouTube to focus on other things, like podcasts.
“So if you’re continuing to crank out content, why would they ever give you more money per view?” he added to me in a text message. “They won’t. They can just whittle it away slowly over time. The lines of views and of revenue get further apart the more you pull back to see more of the time line.”
It’s one thing to maybe be able to pay your rent with a check from YouTube, if you’re flying solo. It’s a lot tougher to make publisher-level profit that way, and to create high-budget videos.
So Motor Trend stands to potentially make more money and hopefully be more sustainable with ads on its own terms and subscription money. There are of course downsides to this: YouTube is still the world’s largest video platform, by far, so tapering off that cuts into video discovery, sharing and potentially growth as well. And it’s also worth noting that it’d be very hard to have a viable subscription model if Motor Trend started from scratch, rather than by building up a huge audience on YouTube over several years. Still, Motor Trend may possibly make a lot more money with subscribers in the five-digits than with YouTube audiences in the seven-digits.
A few days later, we come to today, where everyone’s favorite car-mad Australians Mighty Car Mods weighed in on the controversy. Noting it’s not “our business what they do or how they run their business,” the MCM guys say they’ve gotten a lot of questions about whether they’d follow suit and also put a paywall around their videos, much to the chagrin of 2.6 million subscribers.
While the eventual answer to that is no—MCM will stay free, they say—they note the immense challenges that come with paying for this kind of thing. YouTube doesn’t pay for it like it used to, so the answer has to be a paywall, some sort of deal with sponsors or larger corporations, or selling it to a TV network. Or they can just make everything super cheap and low-budget.
From that post:
We understand that we’re basically on our own with the support of some select sponsors and an incredible group of loyal viewers from around the world. We started out making videos on the driveway, funding it ourselves and releasing the videos for free. Even when YouTube activated monetisation on our channel we didn’t turn it on because we never set out to run a business, expand a media empire or spend all our time running a company. As we started making more videos and fans started asking for bigger builds and more detailed videos, our episodes started costing more in time and resources.
We realised that we needed to finance it somehow to keep it running because we were working day jobs, then sinking all our pay into a show that was going out for free. A combination of YouTube ads, supportive sponsors and the wonderful support of MCM fans buying merchandise has kept MCM “free” for 10 years, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.
Occasionally we’re going to talk about sponsors in the videos because the support of these companies means that we can stay independent of a large network, TV channel or production company and we are so grateful to them for helping us make the show.
That whole post is worth a read in full, and in it the MCM guys note it’s “up to each company, media group or YouTube channel to decide how they are going to work it, and how this impacts their audience.” But nobody should expect to get rich off YouTube anymore.
(For whatever it’s worth, here at Jalopnik—which has the benefit of being owned by a huge media company, Univision—we do also publish to YouTube and social networks, but the moneymaker is the internal player embedded on the site that typically has ads playing against it. The downside to that, I have found, is that it hurts the sharing of our videos onto other platforms like forums and Reddit, but hey, we gotta pay the bills.)
YouTube’s fine and dandy if you’re a small operation willing to crank stuff out on a tiny budget all of the time—and I do mean all of the time—but if you’re an actual publication with people to support and high-budget stuff you want to create, it’s an increasingly difficult place to do it. And it speaks to the larger problem of Google, and Facebook, squeezing publishers out of advertising revenue, whether they’re video-centric or not.
Call it greed if you want, but I don’t see it that way, even if I can understand why longtime fans who got something for free for a long time feel burned. I think Motor Trend’s offering a solid enough deal here—a reasonable subscription fee, or a totally free service with ads. If you enjoy what they do, support the creators this way.
As Mighty Car Mods put it, someone’s gotta pay for the wall.