YouTube is betting large on original programming, throwing dollars at both established YouTube producers and successful television producers. Disney-ABC is on board to develop original content. CSIcreator Anthony Zuiker is involved. Can YouTube reinvent television, again? While manufacturers revealed countless Internet-enabled TV sets at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), YouTube's VP of Global Content Robert Kyncl announced the Internet-streaming giant wants to remake the online video world to look more like television. In 2011 the service announced a $100 million investment in original content, targeted at studios and big name creators as well as home-grown YouTube stars. At CES, Kyncl confirmed YouTube's vision of a future that goes beyond cat videos, and involves curating a hundred or so channels of professional content targeted at niche audiences. In short, YouTube wants to remake its streaming video service to look like the cable world.
Google's video streaming site now delivers 4 billion video views per day and claims an hour of video is uploaded to the site every second. As Kyncl pointed out, many of YouTube’s highest performing channels would rank among the top 20 cable channels in terms of viewership. Machinima.com for instance, a channel focused on young men who play video games, enjoys “125 million viewers watching more than 1 billion of its videos a month,” reports the LA Times.YouTube wants to double-down on this success, increasing the quality of content and curating channels that would more specifically target niche audiences.
The assumption behind YouTube's new licensing venture is that they can bring back appointment TV -- something the DVR and the Internet effectively killed off. The rise of multi-set households in the 1980s and the expansion of cable in the 1990s fragmented the television audience, splitting viewers across multiple viewing locations and an increasing number of channels. The spread of the DVR and TiVo in the early 2000s, finished the job the VCR had commenced by allowing people to efficiently time-shift their viewing, meaning not only did they not need to huddle together in front of the living room set, but they no longer needed to assemble at the same time to enjoy their favorite programming.
In effect, these developments broke the power of the television schedule -- while live sports, news events, awards shows, reality TV finales, and certain programming blocks (Fox’s “Animation Domination” and Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” serving as two contemporary examples) can still assemble reasonable numbers of viewers simultaneously, the bulk of television’s viewers consume when and where they desire. The development of effective online streaming offerings from the major networks and Hulu have further fractured the schedule’s draw.
By investing in high-quality content targeted at specific audiences, and transforming itself into a place viewers approach as a set of channels rather than a space they engage with as a searchable patchwork of content, YouTube’s new channel venture could bring back appointment viewing by restructuring the online video experience as one that regularly delivers audiences reliable bites of content.
In effect, their investment aims to create more compelling content, and their restructuring as a series of channels serves to deliver video in an fashion that resembles an RSS-feed. Figures from Nielsen reported by USA Today suggest that "The average person now watches a half-hour of online videos a week, though that number doubles among 25- to 34-year-olds." YouTube’s restructure aims to position itself as the provider of that regular half-hour or so in an "appointment" model that conforms to the Internet-era logic of personalization and pull-style access, rather than television’s time-sensitive push model.
Time will tell whether YouTube is successful in re-inventing itself, and whether this reinvention means major content creators play nice with it. If successful it would organize the myriad of viewers who engage with YouTube daily into something that more resembles the manageable "audiences" of television than the diverse and active "users" of the Internet. If it fails, there are always more cat videos.