No, People Are Not Watching 4-Hour YouTube Videos

YouTube Video

News outlets have been breathlessly reporting a trend in 2024 around ridiculously long YouTube videos. Today, NPR ran a story titled Who has time to watch a 4-hour YouTube video? Millions of us, it turns out.

The story writer claims that…

But I choose to be heartened by the rise of long-form video. Or more specifically: By the willingness of people to watch a single video for hours on end. It suggests that quality of work continues to matter – you do, after all, still have to earn all those extra minutes of our attention. And in a culture so quick to blame a raft of societal ills on shrinking attention spans, it offers a surprising and intriguing counter-narrative to the experts who cite audience data to dictate precisely how long a YouTube video, or a web article, or a podcast episode “should” be.

Turns out the answer isn’t quantitative, but qualitative – not precise length, but personal value.

Glen Weldon

I would love to believe this story. But it’s wrong.

People are not watching 4 hour long YouTube videos, at least, not any more than they are “listening” to music in the grocery store.

The actual trend is the rise of convenient smart TVs and the realization among YouTube creators that they can compete with daytime TV for video-mindlessly-playing-in-the-background.

How do I know? I run the occasional YouTube ad campaign for clients. I’m not a big advertiser, but the trend is obvious enough to me. Here’s one example.

No, People Are Not Watching 4-Hour YouTube Videos 1

So what’s going on here? Well, this is a campaign that consists of a mix of pre-roll ads along with promoted videos. The targeting is tightly targeted to a specific audience and geography.

Smart TVs get most of the views but have near zero advertiser engagement.

People turn on their favorite YouTube channel to play in the background while they go about their day. They are not paying attention. Sure, the YouTuber might be focused on high production value in the same way that Good Morning America is trying to do good interviews…but the audience isn’t actually paying close attention or watching.

Start looking around and you’ll see it everywhere.

Sure, there’s the hand-wavy “brand awareness” caveat that YouTube likes to push along with…oh, the billboard industry, etc (again, where people are looking…but also not paying attention).

But my takeaway is that ridiculously long YouTube videos are just another hack, err, channel for content creators to make stable income, all funded by advertisers who aren’t really paying attention. We’re all getting mildly better, more custom background videos…but we definitely are not suddenly into watching 4 hour videos about a Disney hotel.

Turns out the answer isn’t quantitative or qualitative, but money mixed with personal habit – not precise length, but a weird mix of changing technology, personalization, and commercial market demands.

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