Boneheaded Business Decisions: Watcher Edition

Image: Watcher Twitter

I’ve been a fan of Watcher Entertainment for a while now, having binged both BuzzFeed Unsolved versions – true crime and paranormal – during the pandemic. And I’ve wanted these guys to get more notice, so I’m constantly recommending shows to my friends. (Puppet History is my go-to.) But on Friday, they announced a move that has backfired so spectacularly that I don’t know how the company will ever recover.

In a big spectacle that they’ve been hyping up for a while, Shane Madej, Ryan Bergara, and Steven Lim (aka Watcher Entertainment) dropped a video on YouTube revealing that they were leaving YouTube to start their own streaming platform, Watcher TV. All of their previous content would be removed (a move that they have since walked back after widespread backlash, although according to a statement made to Variety it was never the plan) and only available on their new platform, for the price of $6 a month.

Fans reacted…poorly. I’ve scrolled through the company-specific subreddit, several Twitter posts (including Bergara’s), and the comments underneath their “Goodbye YouTube” video and for the most part the reaction is overwhelmingly negative. Everything is getting ratio’d to hell; at the time of my writing this, the goodbye video has five times as many dislikes as it does likes. It was trending on Twitter and Tumblr, and I saw at least a dozen Tiktoks about it despite never having watched any Watcher content on Tiktok.

While fans understand that their own streaming service would give the company more creative control and a higher percentage of income, many felt that the announcement itself was badly handled, and that this move is essentially a boneheaded decision from a business perspective. True, production costs have noticeably increased, and their staff of 25 needs to be paid. But Watcher videos on YouTube have sponsored content in addition to ads, there is a variety of Watcher-related merch, and the company has a Patreon that they don’t really promote. 

It seems to me that if production costs were an issue, the first thing to do would have been to cut them somehow. I loved BuzzFeed Unsolved when it was Shane and Ryan at a table with a folder. I don’t think the fancy basement set and shiny graphics of Mystery Files make it a better show. (In fact, I found this season incredibly boring and kept forgetting when new episodes dropped.)

Not to mention, I’ve seen a lot of comments from people remarking that they didn’t even know they had a Patreon. I don’t subscribe to the Patreon, but I’ve heard that it has a little bit of exclusive content. In my opinion, the perks that I am familiar with don’t really seem worth the cost. One would think that a good move would be to revamp the Patreon and build up the existing revenue streams. 

It is also about how the announcement was handled, and not just the announcement itself. They have been hyping this up for a while as something that the fans would love – there was a countdown and everything – but it still came out of nowhere. The tone of the goodbye video also seems kind of shaming and manipulative, as though people who for whatever reason will not (or cannot) pay for Watcher TV no longer want to watch their content. I am still a fan even though I don’t want to pay $6 a month for another streaming platform.

Steven Lim made a remark about how “everyone can afford $6 a month”, which really irritated a lot of fans because, actually, no, everyone cannot afford that. Even if the United States weren’t in a recession, with grocery prices and housing costs skyrocketing while wages stagnate, $6 a month is a lot in some countries. Moving to their own platform, which may or not be available in certain countries, would alienate a good portion of their fanbase.

And for those of us who can swing the monthly subscription fee, some of us just don’t want to. I have a ridiculous amount of streaming services that I pay for already, and I tend to resent having to pay for something I originally got for free. Others have expressed that they don’t want to support the move because they worry this will start a trend. Still others have expressed distaste that the company is basically asking viewers to fund their videos while making a series based on travelling and eating super expensive food.

Plus, I’m sorry, but $6 is what it costs to get Peacock or Paramount+ or HIDIVE – established (ish) streaming services with a sizeable catalog and enough new titles to justify an ongoing monthly subscription. Watcher may have a lot of shows, but the seasons are short, and they only usually put out one new video a week. One of the TikToks I saw was lamenting that when they launched their new service yesterday they provided no new content, only their back catalog. Which everyone saw on YouTube. For free.

The platform itself is also woefully underdeveloped, only available on a website for the moment – no apps at all, which is a dumb move in 2024. They are reportedly using Vimeo OTT (the same service Dropout uses), which disables comments by default for new sites. Some fans are speculating that Watcher TV left the comments off on purpose. It also seems to be currently region-locked, and though Shane himself suggested password sharing in the video, there is a screen limit.

In a post on the subreddit, I learned that they published their upcoming schedule of new shows on their Patreon for subscribers only, and they did it after announcing the platform. Those who had already purchased an annual subscription (at a discount – a perk offered to Patreons) feel that they were intentionally misled, believing that they would be getting new seasons of landmark shows like Ghost Files and instead getting new episodes of Survival Mode, which was always treated as side content on their YouTube channel. It will follow the same posting schedule as YouTube, which is only one video per week. And of course, non-Patreons aren’t able to view the schedule at all, which seems to imply that they are hoping people will blindly sign up for the service.

There was also the news that their Patreon would pivot away from their video content and focus solely on their podcasts. People who pay for an annual Patreon subscription are no longer getting what they paid for. This, in conjunction with everything else, has fans in an uproar. People are cancelling their subscriptions and even selling their tickets to the live shows. Patreons essentially are being asked to double-dip; none of the tiers on Patreon – which range from $5 to $25 a month – come with a free subscription to the new Watcher TV. No one understands why they would do this to the people who were already paying for their content.

I won’t get into their comments on making “television caliber” videos. At the end of the day, they are creators, and if that’s what they want to do, more power to them. But their existing fanbase, for the most part, isn’t really interested in “television caliber” shows. In fact, some fans believe that the quality of the shows has gone down as production values have gone up. And nothing they produce screams TV to me, simply high-quality YouTube videos. Besides, “television caliber” shows have ads.

Now that it’s been more than 48 hours since the announcement, fans are also upset that no one from Watcher Entertainment has released a statement about the fan reaction. The only thing that they’ve done is “clarify” that it was never their intent to remove their videos from YouTube even though comments, articles, and privating the videos shows that it clearly was. They have always emphasized that their fanbase was more like a community, yet when the community is upset, no one has anything to say. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate the bad reaction and are taking the weekend to mull over what they will say. Also, it is the weekend, and even YouTubers get days off. But the silence is deafening.

The silence is especially deafening when you realize just how much this news has broken containment. For a lot of people, this is their first exposure to Watcher Entertainment, and it’s bad. There are reaction videos on YouTube. Someone who specializes in crisis PR is offering advice on the subreddit. People are grabbing popcorn to watch the train wreck.

The bottom line is, putting previously free content behind a paywall is always going to be an unpopular move. But if they had handled everything better – talked about this for longer, made the switch slowly – I think most people would have been more forgiving. As it is, they have already lost some subscribers on YouTube (at least 40,000, the last I heard), and tarnished their reputation. Even if they reverse this decision, some fans will likely never forgive them.

UPDATE 4/22/24: After almost three days of backlash from fans with no response from anyone involved in the company (but plenty of subtweets from friends and family members, most of which criticized the fans’ response), Watcher has released another video. In this video, they apologized for the way they handled the announcement and the insensitivity in their first announcement, offering compromises.

These compromises, per Variety, include putting their new content from Watcher TV on their YouTube page 30 days after it debuts on the platform and giving Patreon subscribers (or at least certain tiers) a code for a free subscription. (Previously even the highest tier Patreon subscriber only got a discount on an annual subscription – presumably only for the first year – and only if they signed up by a certain date.)

They also, as mentioned, apologized for how they handled everything – such as remarking that “everyone could afford it” when that clearly isn’t the case, or for giving off the vibe that their fanbase was not important to them.

For some people, this is enough. They have apologized, made some changes, and the content will still be available on YouTube for those who cannot afford to pay for the streaming platform. But for others, this is too little, too late. The damage has already been done.

Author: Jamie Sugah

Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.

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