To say that the nature of television is changing would be a massive understatement.
A medium that was a life-changing revolution to a generation is now becoming an afterthought when compared to the Internet and, as a result, companies are scrambling to find ways to stay relevant in a cord-cutting world.
In my house, we have the complete cable package, but if it were up to my daughter, we wouldn’t need it anymore.
When you have an infant, you can watch whatever you want. Newborns sleep a great deal of the time and even when they’re awake, they’re not interested in the TV. They’re far more fascinated by their own hands. They’ve yet to be indoctrinated by our culture, so they aren’t begging to watch yet another show with a member of a royal family or a talking animal.
Of course, that all changes quickly.
At some point, the kid that used to lie in the crook of your arm as you held the bottle and watched a movie on Saturday night and the NFL and NBA on Sunday begins to ask to watch kids shows. Somehow, she saw Minnie Mouse or Daniel Tiger and was so taken that she wanted — no, demanded, as toddlers do — to see them again. And again. And again.
And so for the next few years, those were the visitors that invaded my living room on a daily basis: Mickey Mouse and his clubhouse gang, Sofia, Peppa, the Little Einsteins, and PJ Masks; later, it was Elena, Barbie, Strawberry Shortcake, and Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. And don’t forget the films. Tangled is her favorite, but if it features a Disney princess or was made by Pixar, chances are I’ve seen it more than once, perhaps even a few dozen times. And that’s not even mentioning Descendants.
We’re careful about screen time, though. When we’re home, we don’t just sit in front of the tube. I write, my wife is a crafter, and we’re both voracious readers, so we have gone to great pains to ensure that TV and movies are a treat to be enjoyed in moderation, like chocolate milk or candy. So when we do turn it on, we usually let her decide what to watch. It’s for this reason I’ve never seen an episode of Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead. If it’s not on Disney Junior or Nick Jr., chances are I haven’t seen it.
However, both of those channels have largely been left behind in favor of YouTube. Over the past several months, my living room TV has been increasingly taken over by disembodied hands.
It began with Fun Toys Collector, better known as “Disney Collector,” a woman with manicured nails and an accented voice so soothing that it has put my wife and me to sleep on multiple occasions. It’s like audio chloroform. The New York Times refers to her as an “anonymous unboxer” because no one knows the woman’s identity, only that she is “known for her stylish and topical nails, which change from Hello Kitty-appliqued pink to a frosty ‘Frozen’ theme to fit the toys on display — a bit of flair that’s helped elevate her from the pack.”
However, she only unboxes (a fancy internet term for “opens”) toys, so as my kid continued to mature and her playing became more complex, she grew out of it slowly but surely.
Somehow, she — and we — stumbled upon Come Play with Me, which hosts two kids playing out all different scenarios with their dolls and toys. Most storylines revolve around Elsa and Anna from Frozen, who are portrayed as the mothers, while the toddler versions of them, who are given the monikers Elsia and Annia, are the children, but there are also episodes with Shopkins, Barbie, Rapunzel, and a host of others. The channel, was created in January 2014 and now has more than 2 million subscribers and 2.7 billion views.
Like Disney Collector, you never see their faces, but even if you see their hands, it’s by accident and it’s only for a moment. The fourth wall is almost never broken, the dolls serving as method actors that would make Daniel Day-Lewis proud. Hence its appeal. Come Play with Me works for our daughter — and millions of others — because, at its core, it’s authentic. While the production values may have increased since the first video, it’s clear that these kids would be playing this way whether there is a camera trained on them or not.
It really does seem as though you’re watching kids play and, for the most part, they’re quite clever and even funny on occasion. While I would never say that the wedding of Elsa and Jack Frost — so monumental it required two episodes like it was a network television event in the late ’90s — was good, it was an impressive feat in detail, from the assigned table seating and the food to the low, indiscernible murmuring of a large crowd in pockets of conversation. Having Elsa, with her freezing powers, marry Jack Frost (who is really just a Ken doll with some silver in his hair) is also pretty ingenious. It’s the kind of creativity that so many adults lose as they age.
Most of all, it was fun. We all know how tireless kids are when they’re in the realm of make-believe and watching this exhibition reminded me of when I would spend hours setting up a war between He-Man and Skeletor, each of their armies ready for battle, with Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain on each end.
Plus, I’ve decided that I’m now going to dance like the men at this wedding:
My kid is an only child and while she has cousins she sees at least once a week and friends she sees at school, nothing is the same as having a sibling under the same roof. I try to play with her as much as possible at night and on weekends, but life has a habit of getting in the way and I think this show makes her feel a little bit as if there are other kids around. She interacts with it — as much as one can interact with a prerecorded video — and she borrows from it, pulling out her own dolls and furniture to create her own wacky situations similar to the ones she sees onscreen.
Sometimes it can be too much. We’ve had to tell her that just because they may put food or lotion on their Barbie doesn’t mean she can or should — but I think it’s a better than just sitting there, staring blankly at the screen in a catatonic state as colorful images pass before her eyes. She has a full imagination and invents entire storylines full of complex rules and backstory just as I did with He-Man and just as I’m sure you did with your toy of choice. I don’t think, as some have claimed, that it replaces her imagination by creating the story for her, I think it just helps spark more of it. That’s how ideas work — they build on one another.
Plus it’s not on all the time. In fact, we limit it to only a short time every day — and that’s only if she’s well-behaved. If not, then she doesn’t see her faceless friends at all that day and maybe not the next day either.
Opening and playing with toys on YouTube is an enormous business, so much so that, with some luck and under the right circumstances, kids on camera make so much money that their parents can actually quit their jobs.
Despite the fact that all anyone knows about Disney Collector is her hands and her voice, Business Insider estimated that it was the most financially successful YouTube account of 2014, pulling an estimated $4.9 million that year. Just for opening boxes! Since the channel’s launch in April of 2011, it has amassed nearly 9.6 million subscribers and over 13.4 billion views.
According to one estimate, Come Play with Me earns upwards of $160,000 per month, which equates to around $2 million annually. A Yahoo article from 2015 confirmed that a similar channel, Hulyan Maya, which boasts 57 million more views than Come Play with Me (2.77 billion vs. 2.71 billion) but has 620,000 fewer subscribers (1.4 million as opposed to 2.0 million), did pull in over a million dollars in a single year, so those numbers are probably relatively accurate.
Obviously, with so much money up for grabs, channels such as these have spawned a cadre of imitators. Most, unfortunately, are pretty terrible and, honestly, quite creepy because most of these videos are of low quality and feature greedy adults employing awful attempts at child-like voices. Their lust for quick cash and their cynicism that children will devour have deadened much of their creativity. And that’s why they often are not successful.
You can’t bullshit children. They know the difference between kids playing pretend and soulless adults pretending to be kids playing pretend.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch my kid play while watching other kids play.
This article was originally posted by Christopher Pierznik. He is the author of nine books, all of which are available in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared in XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.