Sunday 27th May 2018,

Can — And Should — YouTube Recreate TV?

Thanks to Chuck Tryon for linking!

A redesign can make or break a website — remember Facebook before the News Feed? — or it can mean nothing at all. The consequences of YouTube’s latest redesign are unknown, but I view it with some ambivalence. I’m excited, but I have my reservations.

Clearly I’m in the minority. As Mike Hale wrote last week in the Times:

But beyond aesthetics lies a deeper change, one that the naysayers have perceived, explicitly or intuitively: the redesign is a muted but firm declaration that the party is over. It’s YouTube’s strongest step away from what will be seen as its short-lived early heyday as a largely unregulated repository of funny cats, anonymous guitar masters, angry Asian bus riders and countless other weird and wonderful things.

Hence the 14,000 dislikes on the video announcing YouTube’s relaunch. Hale’s article is brisk and broad analysis of YouTube’s “new” philosophy: to make the site more professional and ad-friendly, all while borrowing liberally from successful social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter (G+ integration, “Trending” tabs, a homepage news feed). YouTube still has to live on the web, but it desperately wants to be television.

This is not news, far from it. YouTube has been in a constant process of remaking itself pretty much since Google bought the company in 2006. Media coverage of YouTube in 2005 and 2006 focused almost exclusively on its “personal” uses: home movies and cat videos. But 2006 brought brought lonelygirl15, which made it pretty clear to YouTube watchers that the quirk would be streamlined as soon as possible (remember: Bree was a fake vlogger).

YouTube has always been about becoming television, from the “channels” to the partner program. And television is about organizing, curating and selling content. It isn’t about “anyone can upload” and discover new things, despite ventures like Current and YouToo. Tosh.0 is the perfect TV response to web video: show funny videos, but funnel them through the voice of reason, the grown-up guy with a producer credit.

The site’s list of most subscribed users has stayed fairly consistent. There has been some movement, to be sure. Fred went from one to about eight. But check in to YouTube’s stars every few months and most of the names will look familiar: Smosh, Kevin Wu, Ray William Johnson, Ryan Higa, etc. They have been at it for years and built reliable and passionate fan bases. The other top content creators are full on networks like College Humor and Machinima. YouTube had consistency and popularity! The holy grail of media distribution.

Realizing it was building next-gen stars and franchises, YouTube has been steadily cultivating its homegrown talent, while courting as much content as the mainstream media will give it, most recently nabbing the juggernaut of Disney. VEVO, which distributes corporate music videos, has been a major success story.

YouTube as a hub for “cat videos” hasn’t been true for awhile, and it seems its most recent changes are meant to send a clear signal about that to those who haven’t been paying attention. But if you have been paying attention, the trajectory from about 2008 to the present has been clear: YouTube’s partner program, movie rentals/TV classics/web originals, YouTube Live, YouTube Leanback, partnering with universities, giving grants to creatorsbuying Next New Networks, NextUp, etc. This is not to mention the many partnership deals with film, TV and news organizations.

The changes haven’t just come from the top. Users too have banded together to create companies, United Artists-style, to make ad/sponsorship sales and marketing more effective, best epitomized by Maker and The Collective, both of whom already work and do deals with major brands and TV networks.

Online channels that could distribute their programs elsewhere, from Machinima to CH, still use YouTube as a hub. And others like My Damn Channel continue to publish on the site.

In short, YouTube realized a while ago they already have a robust programming slate, the hardest thing to establish before starting a full-fledged television network (just ask Oprah). That is why it supported its redesign with a $100 million committment to new and existing programming, its largest of many previous investments.

In fact, the site’s biggest problem was the interface, which after a number tweaks still didn’t represent the serious commitment to quality programming advertisers prefer. As web analytics have improved, there’s money to be made, and Google has set its hungry eyes on the billion-dollar market for TV, of which right now video commands a small portion. A growth market? There’s nothing a publicly traded company loves more.

Moving into this new market has been critical for Google, which fears search marketing might be replaced by social media advertising — and Google+ is not yet, and may never be, a viable competitor to Facebook and Twitter. So far the company has been feasting on the healthy doses of search cash it gets each quarter. Mobile is a growth area too. But as the web and TV converge, why not go for a piece of that pie? Particularly when you have the largest video site on the web — a market position increasingly threatened by Facebook, it should be said.

All this is great news to existing YouTube creators and mainstream media celebrities, who now have a more sophisticated platform to match the rapidly improving quality of their content.

Missing from the conversation is anyone planning to start up on YouTube today, or who haven’t already established a presence on the site. All of “you” out there who may find YouTube’s brand name and motto — “Broadcast Yourself” — a bit misleading. (Note: that motto is off the homepage).

With its tent pole series and franchises, will YouTube nurture new fans? Can it still accommodate spreadability (or virality)? And what if you make the kind of content that doesn’t spread as quickly or fantastically as the stuff from Key of Awesome or Barely Political?

There are options on the web for those creators, sites like blip, and the few independent web series networks. But with other large video sites like Hulu, Netflix and Crackle already working with Hollywood to create quality over-the-top video, the options are dwindling for producers looking to cash in on the “new television.”

Whichever way the market goes, though, it’s an exhilarating time to be producing and distributing video!

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.