Brow Beat

Why Patriot Act Succeeded Where Netflix’s Other Talk Shows Tanked

Netflix’s forays into the genre haven’t lasted long, but Hasan Minhaj may have cracked the code.

In this photo illustration, Hasan Minhaj sits on one corner of the White House. He's very large, and the White House is very small and seat-size.
Hasan Minhaj. Netflix

Last December, a couple of weeks after the final 2018 episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj premiered on Netflix, the YouTuber Lilly Singh (aka Superwoman) released a collaborative video starring Minhaj and herself titled “Gift Guide for Immigrant Parents.” The Christmas-themed video is an amusing dig at South Asian family dynamics, as Singh and Minhaj provide tongue-in-cheek gift suggestions for millennials: getting a fake medical degree, having grandchildren, giving coupons instead of actual gifts. It was also the latest salvo in Patriot Act’s aggressive online promotional strategy, one that departs from the marketing playbooks for Netflix’s previous unsuccessful attempts at the talk show genre—including The Break with Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show, both of which were axed on the same day last August—by focusing its efforts on building a significant YouTube presence.

Late night TV shows have been leveraging YouTube as a promotional platform for years, giving segments like Carpool Karaoke and Mean Tweets a cultural impact orders of magnitude greater than the shows that spawned them. But neither The Break nor The Joel McHale Show had its own YouTube channel and only released trailers and clips on Netflix’s official channel, which also releases trailers and clips from the streamer’s more than 800 other titles. Patriot Act, however, has taken full advantage of the opportunity to extend its reach, putting entire episodes on YouTube as well as digital-only clips, a strategy that has helped it stand out from the glut of content that Netflix releases every week.

Patriot Act’s YouTube channel splits into two different categories: onstage content, which includes episodes and clips of the show, as well as informal audience Q&As called “Deep Cuts”; and offstage digital exclusives where Minhaj performs goofy sketches or vlogs in the show’s offices. Minhaj has also produced videos with other Netflix stars, like Tan France from Queer Eye and Marie Kondo from Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, which were released through Netflix’s official YouTube channel.

Putting full episodes of Patriot Act on YouTube runs contrary to Netflix’s ethos of exclusivity; Chelsea, which ran two seasons before being canceled, amassed a significant following by releasing clips through Chelsea Handler’s personal YouTube channel, but it never released full episodes outside of the service. As Patriot Act co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam explains, “We wanted to just make the show as accessible as possible. … Early on, I think there was maybe some confusion about how the rollout would go, or maybe some hesitancy, but since, Netflix has been super supportive and they’ve been super happy about having taken this approach.”

While Patriot Act’s digital exclusives tend to start with a mundane premise—in one video, Minhaj tries out various Christmas traditions, and in another, he adds his own lyrics to the Patriot Act theme song—they are endlessly entertaining. Minhaj has always had, as writer Mallika Rao put in a recent profile for the Atlantic, a “ludicrously telegenic” personality, and the videos also give him the opportunity to lean into his cross-cultural identity without deviating from the show’s topic-driven format. In a video about the popular Facebook group Subtle Asian Traits, Minhaj casually discusses how embarrassed he gets while talking to his grandmother because of his poor command of Hindi, an embarrassment familiar to most members of the Indian diaspora.

Patriot Act also produces exclusive videos for YouTube that are built around viewer discussions in a segment called “Hasan Responds.” “We think it’s super important, especially when you’re building a new show, to give people something that they can play along with and feel like they’re in on it,” says Dan Davis, Patriot Act’s senior digital producer. “I think we’re cultivating an audience and building a loyal following because they see like, ‘Oh you’re actually paying attention to what we’re saying.’ ” A scroll through the show’s YouTube comments reveals a strong sense of camaraderie, in-jokes, and positivity (surprising for YouTube), a testament to the team’s willingness to directly engage with its audience.

The “two-pronged” digital approach, as Davis puts it, of onstage and offstage content has shown promising early results for the fledgling show; in the three months since its YouTube channel was created in October 2018, the channel has garnered over 180,000 subscribers, and its videos have received over 11 million views. (Given that Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped and vague about numbers, even to its own producers, Patriot Act’s YouTube presence also provides a rare opportunity to gauge the size of a hit show’s viewership.) As a point of comparison, Sarah Silverman’s recently canceled Hulu talk show I Love You, America had a YouTube channel that maxed out at 43,000 subscribers and 15 million views over 18 months.

It has also made Patriot Act one of the most self-aware shows on Netflix. While Venkataramanujam and Davis deny that the show’s digital strategy was influenced by Netflix’s cancellation of its predecessors in August, its desire to sustain audience engagement outside of Netflix’s platform has certainly paid off. One of the reasons why The Break and The Joel McHale Show didn’t find an audience was their failure to break out of the gigantic Netflix bubble. As TV critic Judy Berman argued in a recent piece for Time, the staggering volume of content has led to “Netflix fatigue,” and audiences and critics are struggling to keep up with its new releases on a weekly basis. “ … What’s the point of churning out more programming than you can effectively promote?” Berman lamented. After The Break was canceled, Wolf echoed Berman in a November interview with Kevin Nguyen for GQ: “There’s so much on Netflix right now that it’s like it’s almost become a tomb.”

Josef Adalian’s profile of Netflix for New York says that the company values metrics like “survivorship,” which gauges whether its viewers continue watching a show after the first episode, and “28-day viewership,” which gauges how many viewers complete a show’s full season within the first four weeks of landing on the platform. Even though Patriot Act has found a dedicated audience that will continue to tune in and watch Minhaj when the show returns on Sunday, Venkataramanujam says that they will continue releasing the show’s episodes on both YouTube and Netflix. “It’s a relationship we’ve built with the audience,” he says. “To backpedal on that now would be a breach of trust that I don’t think we’d feel comfortable with.” Considering that Netflix sees YouTube as a threat, it might seem ironic that a Netflix show like Patriot Act is leveraging YouTube to build its audience. But in 2019, it also feels like a necessity.