Noam Lovinsky (second from left) and his team at YouTube are refocusing the brand on channels that will play on any platform. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
YouTube rolled out a new app for the PS3 yesterday. This might not sound like a big deal, but the new app is just the first salvo in a war for your living room, one powered by an all-new channel-driven YouTube.
Remember YouTube? You could use it to watch baby pandas sneezing, or a kid named David riding home from the dentist hopped up on drugs. YouTube grew into an 800-million-viewer megolith largely on the strength of one-off uploads that were 21st-century versions of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Along the way it spawned its own stars and even series, including Lonelygirl15, The Gregory Brothers, and of course, um, Fred. It spawned its own genres, like reaction videos and unboxing videos. Go to the front page, and it would show you the latest viral hit. And then another. And another. And suddenly, 20 minutes were gone.
But now that’s all changing.
The old YouTube you knew (and maybe loved!) is gone. It’s been replaced by something that’s a lot more like a play-anywhere, device-agnostic, multi-channel network. It’s becoming a cable network for people who don’t have cable. YouTube doesn’t want you to watch videos anymore — not in the singular sense, at least. It wants you to stick around and see what comes next. It wants you to start watching on your phone as you head home from work, pick up again on your TV as you relax in the evening, and then nod off to its content while you’re lying in bed, as it streams from your tablet.
And mostly, YouTube is becoming a backdoor to let Google into your living room, no matter whose set-top box sits on your Ikea MAVA. And so how will YouTube pull this off? Channels.
“The benchmark for what makes mass-market television has changed,” says Shishir Mehrotra, YouTube’s VP of product management. “Cable has run out of space. If you’re going to broadcast content to everybody whether or not they watch it, you can only afford to broadcast a few hundred channels. But if you move to a world where you can broadcast on demand to only whoever wants it, now you can support millions of channels.”
YouTube is moving away from videos and into a world of channels — on the web, Google TV, gaming console, internet-enabled televisions, smartphones, and anything else with a screen and an internet connection. YouTube is even uglyfying its web interface — on purpose — just to make you notice them.
Google also ponied up $200 million to create and promote new channels, lining the pockets of the likes of Madonna and Ashton Kutcher to create original online episodes for the site, while also using algorithms to generate topical channels made from its existing treasure trove of content. It’s a massive shift in strategy, one meant to boost watch times and overall viewers, rather than total view numbers, YouTube’s traditional performance metric. And it all means is that no matter what type of video content you’re into, you’ll be able to find it on YouTube by the bucketful.
Want your MTV? I mean old-school, music videos broadcast all the time? They’re on YouTube, powered by the Vevo channel. Want the best big wave surfing channel on TV? It’s also on YouTube. Or how about the new drama series from Jon Avnet of Black Swan fame? It’s called WIGS, stars A-list actresses like Kristen Wigg and Dakota Fanning, and is only on YouTube.
There’s more. Twilight Zone-style scream-o creepouts? CSI creator Anthony Zuiker has you covered on the YouTube series BlackBox TV. Live videos from the U.S. Olympic team? 24/7 live coverage of Ramadan, straight from Mecca? Original comedy? Original animation? Original automotive TV with attitude? It’s all on YouTube.
But, look, if you do just want to watch cat videos, for hours on end, there’s still a channel for that too. And it’s freaking awesome.
What’s more, YouTube is taking its channels absolutely everywhere it can. Today it’s PlayStation, but tomorrow it’s the world. Your channels will follow you from device to device — be it a gaming platform, a phone, a tablet or a desktop. It wants you to think, “What’s new on TV?” and then turn to your favorite channel on YouTube to find out.
But YouTube also has two problems, and they’re both very big. First, it has to get you to notice the channels. Second, it has to be able to show you the channels, no matter where you are. Here’s how it plans to pull that off.
Channels in Your Face
YouTube is almost like a public utility — a gigantic hard drive in the sky into which 72 hours of video are uploaded every minute. Think of anything, and there’s a video of it. Famously, even. But YouTube is no longer a receptacle for one-offs. It’s become a platform for independent video producers. These armchair auteurs, tens of thousands of them, have built dedicated audiences who come and sit on the site watching episode after episode, rather than just leaving after one video view.
YouTube saw a trend. “If we could just get everyone to behave like these users, our traffic would 10x,” says YouTube product manager Noam Lovinsky. “The average American watches five hours of TV per day, so that’s our bar.”
The people who spend the most time on the site, YouTube knew, were following niche content and specific producers. What’s more, YouTube’s breakout stars, the newer ones at least, are less likely to be one-hit wonders. Sure, there will always be room for double trainbows. But series like The Onion make people come back again and again. So what if YouTube could make that content even better, and find something for everyone? In short, YouTube is looking to capitalize on classic long-tail economics.
“The only way as a platform, when there’s that extreme level of nichification, is to have massive scale on a worldwide basis,” says Lovinsky. “You can then start delivering audience sizes to advertisers that make sense. And the ROI is there for the advertisers. And as long as the consumer has access to all that content in any location at any time all over the world, we can get to that scale.”
In other words: You, personally, are not valuable to an advertiser. But if YouTube can package your video views with scores of other users with similar interests (and demographics), your patronage becomes valuable. An individual automotive tuning video may not be able to make money on ads, but an entire channel dedicated to automotive tuning could be gold.
But the thing is, users have to start trying out these niche channels. And they have to be able to access them everywhere. And that’s where YouTube’s corporate parent comes in.
“One of the first thing we’re working on is getting a lot more of our users to log in,” Lovinsky says. “That is one example of a huge pro [of Google's new unified login] — the fact that Google is now all on one account system. You’re not just logging into Gmail or Docs, you’re logging into Google. So they’re logging into all Google services. And when you do, we can show you your private watch history. Through that observation of what you are doing as a user, you’ll see us start to make suggestions.”
In short, Google is bringing in signals from the outside. Your Google searches help inform what you might want to watch, without you having to tell YouTube. Search for enough surf reports, and YouTube may suggest a surfing channel. You don’t have to know to look for it, or even be aware that a surfing channel exists.
“We want to create this new use case to help users understand that there are publications behind this video,” says Lovinsky, who compares the use case to seeing an article on a website, and understanding that there are probably other similar articles on the same site.
“In Q4 one of the first things we did was put a big giant ugly black bar on the left side of the homepage with all of your subscriptions,” Lovinsky says with a laugh. “And I’m being harsh because I’m very anal about UI. But we’ll make it prettier.”
But eventually, he posits, that ugly real estate is going to become the most valuable property on YouTube. At the bottom of it, below your subscriptions, are suggested channels. These are the things you’re not yet watching, but that YouTube thinks you may want to see. Click “see more” and you go to a full page of channels.
“Creators will live and die by that guide,” Lovinsky says. “It will be the guide to 100,000 channels that can make or break businesses.”
So far, it seems to be working. YouTube says the top 10 channels it bankrolled are averaging more than a million views per week. The number of net subscriptions per day is up 50 percent per day since December when it rolled out its premium channels. And those who subscribe to channels tend to watch twice as much video as those who don’t. And since it kicked off its channel push, overall watch time is up by 60 percent. (The rate of year-over-year increase is also going up, says YouTube, but it won’t say by how much.)
Best of all? People are unsubscribing from channels — which means they’re actually paying attention to them. In other words, the subscription lists matter enough that people aren’t just dumping things there, and never looking at them again.
One of the channels Google backed in its big investment is Geek and Sundry, a channel targeted at nerds with hosts like Felicia Day (who is also one of its producers), Wil Wheaton and Veronica Belmont. The shows focus on gaming, comics, sci-fi and fantasy. After launching in March of this year, Geek and Sundry has already built a subscriber base of more than 250,000, and its videos have been viewed some 13 million times.
“We love it,” says Geek and Sundry executive producer Sheri Bryant of the channels. “We knew from the beginning we were going after a very targeted market.”
Bryant and Day had an early online video hit with The Guild, which also starred Day. The Guild was one of those shows that proved there was an audience for high-production-value original content on the web. “Back then there was no one else doing it,” says Bryant. “But now? How do you even compete? How do you stand out? YouTube helps you punch through and find subscribers.”
But before channels can go big, there’s another problem it has to work out. Sure, it can show the channels it’s funding on the web. But that game only lasts so long. It needs to be able to show every channel everywhere.
If you’ve got an iPhone, try this experiment. Fire up the YouTube app, search for “Call Me Maybe,” and play the official video. You can’t. Instead of showing the video, the app returns an error that says “Could not load movie.” Now, try pasting the mobile URL for the video in Safari: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fWNaR-rxAic. It should play just fine. That is, once you watch an ad first.
YouTube’s current apps on the iPhone and Apple TV and many other devices won’t preroll ads, something a lot of content creators require. Channels with high-end production values must to be able to make money from ads. No ad roll, no video for you. (It’s worth noting that even before Apple dumped the YouTube app from iOS6, it had long been in need of an update. It would be very surprising if there isn’t one coming soon — made this time not by Apple, but by YouTube itself.)
There’s another problem too. Channels are everything, but just try to find them on the YouTube app on your iPhone. They’re there — at least the ones you’ve already subscribed to. But they’re buried in a back page of the app. And you can’t subscribe to new ones either. Again, you have to use the mobile website (or, on some set-top boxes and gaming devices, the built-in web browsers rather than the apps). YouTube has to change that. And so now, not only is it providing content, it’s building apps to run it.
Your TV Is the Web
(left to right) Francisco Varela, Global Director Platform Partnerships; Insiya Lokhandwala, Manager, Platform Partnerships; Mitch Feinman, Manager, Platform Partnerships; and Sandra Chang, Manager, Content Partnerships, Games, pose in the YouTube offices in San Bruno, California. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired
“Our view is that everything we’re doing needs to work seamlessly across screens,” says Mehrotra, YouTube’s VP of product management. “The biggest device in your house — and probably the most expensive device in your house — is the one thing that doesn’t get the web and online video. We believe it’s just a matter of time.”
YouTube is betting that before long there will be very few screens that aren’t connected to the web. And it wants to bring the Android model to the living room. It wants to be a device-agnostic back end that feeds video to anything with a screen.
“Some people might argue that the phone and the TV make channels even more obvious, because both have a limited form factor. The web is kind of like a drug for engineers, because you can do so many things,” says Mehrotra. “But you get to a mobile device or a television and you’ve got to really focus in on what you want them to do right now.”
The man tasked with doing that is Francisco Varella, who runs platform partnerships for YouTube. Varella’s job is to make sure users can have a consistent experience across devices. It’s his job to make sure that once you find something you love on YouTube, you can find it again, even if you’re moving from a computer to a phone or TV made by an entirely other manufacturer.
“The whole point of this is to fundamentally change the YouTube experience from a one-off video where you’re hoping to strike it rich — where you get lucky with a video you want to watch that YouTube recommends — to a consistent experience of going to the content creator who you know creates good stuff for you,” says Varella. “This is what we’re changing.”
“When we started in TVs back in 2008, we announced at CES to big fanfare that YouTube is coming to TVs. But similar to what happened in our early mobile efforts, they were based on our APIs — which meant our partners had to build applications for us. We relied on their product teams, on their engineering teams, to update the application. Someone who has already sold a TV, we found out, isn’t particularly interested in updating last year’s model.”
So YouTube now has to do that itself. And, basically, the answer is to use the same platform that you’re likely reading these words on: the web. If YouTube’s future apps are HTML-based, it won’t have to rely on manufacturers to update them. It wants the internet-connected TV you buy in 2012 to have the greatest YouTube experience possible in 2015. But to do that it had to make big changes on its back end.
“First we needed to get the technology in place, we’ve got that now. And now we’re making the switchover to HTML5 — much as we have in mobile phones and tablets,” says Varella. “We’re trying to create an ecosystem not by deciding what content is most entertaining, but by being the platform that says, ‘If you create it, we distribute it.’”
The bottom line is that everything will work everywhere, Varella says. No matter what device you bring, you’ll be able to pull up a channel and watch it. Let Apple, LG, Microsoft or Samsung — or Nintendo, Roku or TiVo — make the box. It doesn’t matter. Regardless of who powers your internet-connected TV, Google and YouTube will be on it with hundreds of thousands of channels for you to watch. Serving ads.
“We want to make sure that you can watch whatever it is you want to watch, wherever you want to watch it,” says Varella.
But what if we want to watch it on an Apple TV? At this, Varella’s face breaks out into a broad grin. “Especially if you want to watch it on an Apple TV.”