Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Analyzing YouTube Channels

Posted on | May 2, 2022 | No Comments

The video capabilities of the Internet have made possible a new era of media analysis. The traditions of film and television can be brought to the new online media, including YouTube. The challenge will be to both apply traditional media analysis as well as suggest new modes of televisual criticism for this relatively new medium.[1]

This post reviews some of the techniques used in cinematic and television production and suggests a strategy to analyze YouTube channels based on work in my Visual Rhetoric and IT class. It uses a semiotic (study of meaning) framework to examine the channel imagery (mise-en-scène) and editing (montage) to determine what might make such videos successful. It applies denotative and connotative strategies to describe the meaning-making practices with vocabulary and explain what YouTube creators do to inform/entertain the audience.[2]

Story-telling is an important consideration. Who is telling what story, and how? What narrative devices are being used? How does it engage the audience? This channel Lessons from the Screenplay (LFTS) discuses the narrative of how the new James Bond was introduced in 2006. Note who is speaking, whether you actually see them, and how the story is being told.

What are the main signifying practices that make the YouTube channel a success? A semiotic approach looks closely at the details visible in the video (denotation). It then connects the content with connotative meanings such as social myths and narratives. These details would include various “signs” such as indexical metrics, mainly subscribers, views, likes, and the money YouTubers make. It also looks at the typographies, logos, and other meaning-making practices, such as camera pictures, and how those images are spliced together.

The shot continues to be the major unit of analysis, reflecting the relationship between the camera and the scene. The primary visual grammar holds for the most part – establishing shot (LS), medium shot (MS), closeup (CU). The wider shot creates a meaningful context for the tighter images that provide detail and usually heightened emotion. The smartphone now offers an extraordinary high-quality camera for single shots or high-definition video that can get YouTube channelers started.

Ask more about the mise-en-scene. What do you seen in the image? The lighting? The props? The backgrounds? The special effects (FX)? Is a drone used for birds-eye shots? How is the camera used to create the shot – zooms, pans, tilts. And why? What is the motivation or reason for the technique? Who is doing the shooting? What camera techniques are being used? And why?

A bit more challenging is the editing. Applications like iMovie or just hiring someone on have been helpful for YouTube channelers. The analytical challenge is to keep up with the vocabulary and understanding what the montage is doing in terms of “building” meaning in the narrative.

A narrative is a series of connected events edited in chronological significance. Montage editing can include parallel editing, flashbacks in time, and flash forwards in time as well. What about the montage is noteworthy? What is the pace of editing? What transitions are being used – and once again, what is the motivation?

Ask what drives the narrative. Narration asks who is the storyteller? Who is the narrator? Are they like the anchor in a news program? What is the mode of address: voice-over, talking to the camera, or a combination? Do we see him or her? Is it combined with a voice-over? Or is it all told from a voice of anonymous authority? -the voice of “God” booming over the montage of images.

Also relevant are the microeconomics of the channel and the overall political economy of YouTube. Understanding how YouTube channels make money either through Adsense, brand arrangements, and, more recently, patronage helps understand a channel’s messaging. In the latter, individuals and organizations become “patreons” by pledging to support a channel financially, including smaller payments of gratitude at websites such as buy me a coffee.

Recommendation engines are a key to understanding viewer captivity in YouTube. Using a sophisticated computer algorithm and data collection system, it finds content related to your search or the content you are watching. These computer programs reduce what could become complex search and decision processes to just a few recommendations. It lists a series of video thumbnails based on metadata from the currently viewed video and information gathered about your past viewings and searches.

In February 2005, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim established YouTube in San Bruno, California. YouTube has since become the second-most visited website worldwide with 14 billion monthly views. Only Google, from the same parent company, Alphabet, has more. By 2022, almost 5 billion videos were watched on YouTube every single day, and 694,000 hours of video are streamed on YouTube each minute. More than half of those YouTube views are seen on mobile devices.

This particular form of YouTube analysis asks: What signifying practices make the YouTube channel a success?[3] It applies the denotative and connotative semiotic methodologies to language (describe) and explains what creators do in their videos to educate and/or entertain the audience. This process trains students to understand what techniques are used and their impact. Hopefully, this also contributes to the growing YouTube Studies area in academia.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2022, May 2) Analyzing YouTube Channels.



[1] Pennings, A. (2020, Feb 2). YouTube Meaning-Creating (and Money-Creating) Practices. Retrieved from Accessed May 1, 2022.
[2] Our class uses a series of web pages by David Chandler to learn basic televisual grammar and vocabulary, semiotics and signs, as well as denotation, connotation and myth. His book Semiotics: The Basics is also very useful.
[3] According to Karol Krol, there are several features or qualities that make a YouTube channel successful: continuous posting, using an angle, content quality, and content that is international.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea and the Undergraduate Program Director for a BS in Technological Systems Management. Before joining SUNY, he was on the faculty of New York University where he created and co-managed the BS in Digital Communications and Media. He began teaching cinema studies at the University of Hawaii as a PhD student at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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