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PewDiePie's tumultuous reign as YouTube king is almost over

PewDiePie's tumultuous reign as YouTube king is almost over
YouTube Red Original's "Scare PewDiePie" with Felix Kjellberg. The end of PewDiePie’s five-year reign as the most-subscribed YouTube channel reflects important changes as internet use gets more global. (Associated Press)

YouTube is about to crown a new king.

T-Series Pvt., one of India’s largest record labels, will become the most-subscribed channel on the world’s most popular video site in the next couple weeks. At the beginning of the year, the company had 30 million fans, fewer than half of the following for No. 1 PewDiePie, the Swedish video-game geek and jokester whose real name is Felix Kjellberg.

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The company’s ascent has shocked the tight-knit community of online personalities, prompting some to rally behind PewDiePie and delay T-Series’ ascent. While claiming the most subscribers on YouTube is largely a symbolic achievement, and the company already has the most monthly views, the end of PewDiePie’s five-year reign is a watershed moment that reflects important changes as internet use gets more global.

More than half of the 10 most popular channels on YouTube in terms of monthly views are from outside the U.S., and many of them belong to professional media companies. YouTube’s previous champions have been young, male amateurs like the video blogger Ray William Johnson and comedy duo Smosh. But after years as a mostly Western site for pranks and cat clips, the Google-owned company has lured most of the world’s largest media giants to the site, blurring the line between professional and amateur.

That’s opened the door for Noida, India-based T-Series, which operates 29 channels and boasts more than 100 million combined YouTube subscribers. Its flagship, also called T-Series, has been adding 3 million subscribers a month and will be the first non-English-language channel to hit No. 1.

“This digital era is fantastic," Bhushan Kumar, T-Series’ chief executive officer, said in an interview. "It’s here to stay. It’s giving us popularity. It’s giving us recognition.”

T-Series was founded in 1984 by the CEO’s father, Gulshan Dua. The son of a Delhi juice vendor, Dua started making money by producing and selling cassettes. Though dogged by rumors he was pirating music, Dua, who later adopted the family name Kumar, turned a mom-and-pop shop into a conglomerate that sold CDs and home electronics.

The company achieved its breakout success with the soundtrack to “Aashiqui,’’ a Hindi musical romance that is still one of the bestselling records in the history of India. Bollywood soundtracks account for more than half of the Indian music market and still serve as the foundation of T-Series.

“T-Series used to cater to a much older generation, but it is making movie content and music videos to capture a younger generation,’’ said Allison Stern, chief marketing officer at Tubular Labs, a research firm that tracks online video. “It mirrors what a lot of media companies are doing in the U.S.”

Tragedy struck in 1997 when the T-Series founder, then 42, was murdered after refusing to pay extortion to an organized crime group linked to an infamous gangster, according to reports, and his son took over. The younger Kumar demonstrated a knack for picking the right soundtracks and pushed the company deeper into movie production.

“Bollywood music is like Russian roulette,” said T-Series President Neeraj Kalyan, who joined the company shortly before the murder and has worked as Bhushan Kumar’s deputy for two decades. “You keep on betting, but you don’t know what will be a hit.”

In 1999, Kalyan was asked to look after T-Series’ music exports, just as the internet was about to rock the industry. CD sales started to fall as consumers began downloading pirated music. Though online stores like iTunes ultimately replaced CD sales in many Western countries, that first wave of e-commerce bypassed India. The only way music companies made money online was by selling ringtones.

YouTube came to India in 2007, still mostly a repository for one-off amateur videos. The most-popular channel was lonelygirl15, a web series about a video blogger, and the most-viewed video featured an eight-minute battle among a herd of buffalo, a pride of lions and a pair of crocodiles.

Media companies viewed YouTube as a pariah. In March of that year, Viacom Inc., the owner of MTV and Nickelodeon, sued the company for copyright infringement. Kalyan soon followed. He noticed more and more of the company’s music appearing on YouTube, none with his approval.

T-Series and YouTube settled in 2011, at which point the video site was hosting popular comedians, like Ray William Johnson and Smosh, as well as proper music videos. The most-watched clip that year was Rebecca Black’s “Friday.’’

T-Series started uploading videos to YouTube in 2011. Growth was slow at first, but the company surpassed 1 million subscribers in 2012, one of the first channels in India to do so.

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Then came the Indian mobile miracle. In 2016, Reliance Industries Ltd. launched its modern wireless network and slashed prices for internet access. In just a few years, Indian data use soared. Online video consumption exploded and nobody has benefited more than YouTube.

Today YouTube has more than 300 channels in India with more than a million subscribers each. The company hosted five fan festivals in India this year and announced its first slate of shows there. India is now YouTube’s second-largest market in views and first in users.

“India is a really great bright spot,” said Gautam Anand, head of YouTube’s Asia Pacific business. “It’s one of the fastest-growing markets even within Asia.”

T-Series now posts all of its music on YouTube first, investing huge sums in videos that help promote its movies and spur song sales. YouTube now accounts for 20% to 25% of T-Series’ sales, which are nearing $100 million.

T-Series has thrived by taking advantage of India’s size and diversity. The country is home to hundreds of languages, including at least 13 spoken by more than 10 million people. T-Series operates 29 channels that offer videos in regional tongues and different music genres, including one for devotional music, with 13 million subscribers, another in the Telugu language, with 2 million subscribers, and Bollywood classics at 6.5 million. They all feed into the main channel.

And while Bollywood remains the most popular genre, individual creators with no link to any movie are T-Series’ fastest-growing segment.

Supporters of PewDiePie have scrambled to delay the defenestration of their idol, posting critical comments about T-Series videos and opening up new accounts to boost his totals. Some have had a racial tinge, like one from MrBeast, who bought ads on the video service that said, ‘‘Calling all Bros! You Can Save YouTube.’’

But T-Series videos aren’t just popular in India. About 40% of their viewership is from outside the country, says Kalyan, thanks to the diaspora of Punjabis and other Indians that has attracted fans across the world. Thanks to PewDiePie and MrBeast, that number may go up.

“Whatever those guys are doing, it’s helped me a lot,” Kalyan said. “The people in the West, or in the East as far as Japan were not even aware of us. They now know about us because of all that controversy.”

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Shaw writes for Bloomberg.

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