UPDATED: T-Series pulled ahead of YouTube’s PewDiePie as the No. 1 most-subscribed channel on the platform — before PewDiePie’s fans rallied once again to put him on top.
In a months-long symbolic running battle for the title, PewDiePie and his fans have waged a concerted campaign to fend off the steady encroachment by T-Series, India’s top music and pop-culture brand, calling on supporters to “subscribe to PewDiePie” and preserve his status as the most-subscribed YouTube channel.
As of Wednesday at noon PT, T-Series’ main YouTube channel had 90.394 million subscribers, topping 90.387 million for PewDiePie. By 12:30 p.m. PT, however, PewDiePie had edged up to 90.400 million vs. T-Series’ 90.396 million.
The competition for first place between T-Series and the controversial Swedish-born vlogger/gamer has been closely followed by the YouTube community. It’s been viewed by some as tantamount to a culture war for YouTube, with PewDiePie as the native creator standard-bearer up against a corporate entertainment interest.
The milestone comes after a bizarrely horrific turn of events last week in the “PewDiePie vs. T-Series” footrace — which may have deflated the pro-PewDiePie movement. The alleged attacker in the New Zealand mass shootings, in a Facebook live-stream of the massacre, reportedly urged people to “subscribe to PewDiePie.” The YouTube star, whose name is Felix Kjellberg, has been criticized for making anti-Semitic jokes and using racist language in the past. In response to shootings, Kjellberg tweeted at 1 a.m. ET on March 15, “I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person. My heart and thoughts go out to the victims, families and everyone affected by this tragedy.”
Subscriber counts for PewDiePie and T-Series have been running neck-and-neck over the past week, and T-Series actually has been briefly on top for a few minutes in recent days before it built a bigger lead Wednesday.
In any case, the rivalry has made PewDiePie and T-Series the two most-subscribed channels on YouTube, well ahead of the next closest channel, 5-Minute Crafts, which has 52.1 million subs.
All that said, YouTube subscriber counts aren’t meaningful except as a signal of relative popularity. They don’t reflect relative earning power or even average video views. The “PewDiePie vs. T-Series” storyline has become a kind of meme game, and many of the millions of new subscribers on each side could be low-activity accounts. Note that T-Series has more than 65 billion views overall to date, three times PewDiePie’s count of less than 21 billion lifetime views.
The edgy pranks PewDiePie is fond of staging went over the line in 2017: Through crowdsourcing platform Fiverr, he paid two guys in Sri Lanka to hold up a sign reading “Death to All Jews” as well as a man dressed as Jesus to say “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong.” Disney’s Maker Studios and YouTube subsequently cut business ties with him. Kjellberg, who said he was trying to show the insane things people are willing to do for money, deleted the offending videos and apologized.
PewDiePie also has found himself in hot water over using racist language and has been accused of courting an alt-right audience. In December, he gave a shoutout to a YouTube channel littered with white-supremacist rhetoric; Kjellberg later deleted the citation and claimed he didn’t realize the channel included pro-Nazi references.
PewDiePie, of course, has turned his fight with T-Series into a content-creation and fan-engagement opportunity, which has included “Bitch Lasagna.” a music video dissing T-Series. In another trolling move, Kjellberg in December launched a fundraising campaign for CRY, an Indian children’s rights organization, which raised nearly $230,000.
His supporters have staged even most outlandish stunts: YouTuber Justin Roberts said he bought a $1 million Times Square billboard promoting PewDiePie, and creator Jimmy Donaldson (better known online as “MrBeast”) created a nearly 12-hour video in which he said “PewDiePie” 100,000 times. Fans also have defaced the Wall Street Journal’s website, hijacked Chromecasts and smart TVs to play pro-PewDiePie videos videos, and hacked thousands of internet-connected printers to spit out posters urging subscribe to PewDiePie. One fan created a Twitter account that has posted alerts whenever the subscriber gap between PewDiePie and T-Series dropped below 10,000.
The crusade to keep PewDiePie No. 1 is a microcosm of the unhappiness among many YouTube fans about what is perceived to be a growing colonization of the platform by corporations and mainstream celebrities — and YouTube’s promotion of them. Example: YouTube Rewind 2018 became the most-disliked video ever less than a week after it was posted, reflecting a distaste for the annual mashup’s prominent placement of celebs like Will Smith over native creators including PewDiePie, who was acknowledged only in a few sly animated references.
T-Series’ YouTube channel features a mix of music videos and film trailers. The most-viewed T-Series video to date is the official video for Guru Randhawa’s “Lahore,” which has racked up nearly 700 million views in a little over a year.
“Music for us has never been about Excel sheets; it’s not a number on a paper,” T-Series president Neeraj Kalyan said in an announcement when the channel hit 50 million followers last summer. “It’s a passion, driven by belief in our content, backing our belief with aggression and passion and this has remained our mantra for years which has led us here.”
Kjellberg, 29, rose to popularity with his comedic and profanity-laced takes on gameplay videos and internet culture. In August 2013, PewDiePie’s subscriber count topped then-leader Smosh, the comedy brand operated by the now-defunct Defy Media (and now owned by Rhett & Link’s Mythical Entertainment). In 2015, Variety featured PewPiePie on the cover of the “#Famechangers” issue, citing him as the industry’s most influential digital star.
T-Series, in addition to its primary YouTube channel, operates more than two dozen others. The Mumbai-based entertainment conglomerate produces movies including “Hindi Medium,” “Tumhari Sulu,” “Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety,” “Raid” and “Blackmail.” T-Series also sells a line of consumer electronics.
The Bollywood-fueled rise of T-Series on YouTube comes amid rapid recent growth of India’s internet user base. There were 447 million broadband subscribers in India as of the end of June 2018, up 49% year over year, according to the country’s telecom regulatory authority.
The top 10 most-subscribed YouTube channels after T-Series and PewDiePie (excluding YouTube-operated channels) are 5-Minute Crafts, Canal KondZilla, Justin Bieber, SET India, WWE, Dude Perfect, kids’ channel Cocomelon and HolaSoyGerman.
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