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Why YouTube stars like PewDiePie may be losing views

Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known by his online alias PewDiePie, attends the Social Star Awards 2013 in Singapore.
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Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, better known by his online alias PewDiePie, attends the Social Star Awards 2013 in Singapore.

Some of YouTube's most popular creators are claiming they're losing both views and subscribers because of unannounced platform changes, like adding algorithms to highlight more advertiser-friendly content and pushing viewers toward "recommended" content over their channels.

Whatever the causes of those losses — YouTube declined to comment — it's just as likely to be the result of changing audience tastes more than YouTube changes.

"The discussion that is taking place right now isn't that they're going away," said Burnie Burns, chief creative officer of digital production company Rooster Teeth. "It's that they're going somewhere else."

Earlier this week, YouTube's top creator PewDiePie began lodging complaints that YouTube was highlighting other people's content over his own to his own subscribers and unsubscribing people from channels. He claimed the network was highlighting family-friendly, diverse content over his. He then said he would quit YouTube once he hit 50 million subscribers. Forbes estimated the online star, real name Felix Kjellberg, earned $15 million between June 2015 to June 2016.

While PewDiePie did follow through on his promise to delete his channel, it turned out to be online high jinks. The creator, who now has 50.1 million subscribers on his main channel, deleted a smaller account he created. He claimed in a video the whole thing was a hoax, and pointed out the numerous media reports that took him seriously. YouTube declined to comment on PewDiePie's stunt, and the creator did not respond to a request for additional comment.

However, the issues that PewDiePie brought up in his initial video have been around for some time. Earlier in September, YouTube creator Philip DeFranco, who has more than 4.9 million subscribers on the platform, said in a video that the platform was removing ads from some of his videos because they were not "advertiser-friendly" due to the strong language he uses.

In November, H3H3 Productions (2.8 million subscribers) accused YouTube in November of highlighting clickbait titles and images and not notifying channel subscribers when new videos were uploaded. That same month, user jacksepticeye (13.4 million subscribers) said lots of creators in the gaming scene had a 30 to 40 percent drop in views and subscribers in September and October. He claimed that YouTube was unsubscribing people from channels as well.

If the claims are true that these changes happened in such a short period, it is possible that algorithm changes to highlight other content may have occurred — something Google does have a history of doing. (YouTube has denied any recent changes.) But what's just as likely is that fans found these creators as teens and are now married young adults who are starting families. And, what they want to watch is vastly different.

"In entertainment, If you can hit five, six, seven years at a high level that's incredible," Rooster Teeth's Burns said. "Online that's an eon."

With traditional companies like Disney and Warner Bros. investing in digital networks, and technology companies like AT&T and Verizon also dipping their toes into the game, there's better quality content on YouTube and more competition. Every minute, 400 hours of content are uploaded to the platform, CEO Susan Wojcicki last announced in July 2015. The company said viewing time is up 50 percent year over year.

"As viewers' viewing tastes become more sophisticated and as people are learning how to build a business, more companies are willing to fund higher production costs," said Burns.

Gaming, prank videos and vlogs about personal lives will remain perennial favorites, but companies are seeing growth opportunities expanding programming in other areas. Mom-friendly content is one such area, with AwesomenessTV's Awestruck and RTL Group's StyleHaul leading the charge.

"They want to talk about different things now," Stephanie Horbaczewski, CEO of RTL Group's multichannel network StyleHaul, previously explained to CNBC.

It's not only the tastes of the traditional audience that are changing, but what incoming new viewers want to watch as well. A recent study of 800 international Gen Z-ers by marketing consulting firm Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve showed that their tastes in online content differ from previous generations. Most notably, Gen Z-ers preferred fuel for creativity.

"People are just getting sick of [PewDiePie]," said Popcorn. "He's becoming like a Donald Trumpian ranter."

The survey also found that Gen Z-ers leaned toward content about cooking, how to deal with stress and life, and liked educational marijuana-themed content.

"[Watching YouTube] is more for inspiration," said Janet Siroto, managing director at Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve. "It was not 'I want to lean back and relax and watch people commenting on video games.'… It was 'I want to be inspired by people like me to do something creative.'"

In any case, PewDiePie is still a big winner from this controversy. In the six days after he posted his video, he gained 638,100 new subscribers to his channel, according to ListenFirst Media. In the six days before the video, he had only added 91,100.