Will YouTube ever replace TV?

There are indications YouTube is trying to move away from cat videos. All eyes on content, says Lucy Barrett

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 20 May 2014

Can YouTube replace our TVs? I’m not sure that’s overtly Google’s ambition for its video site, but there are some indications YouTube is in the process of reinventing itself into something more engaging, more entertaining and perhaps even more emotional: something closer to ‘real’ TV.

A few years ago we were being told YouTube was an interactive platform, and all the ways in which people tended to interact with it seemed to confirm this. But lately I’ve been observing Google types using a lot more language associated with ‘content’: words like ‘skills’, ‘celebrity’, ‘episodic’ and ‘audience’, the kind of language that sits more comfortably with traditional TV. And the biggest clue of all, they have started engaging with ad agencies in order to collaborate on better quality creative content.
In April Disney acquired Maker Studios for $500m. Maker is an independent YouTube network, and this deal will give Disney direct access to the hoards of video producers of tomorrow.

Disney may well also fund some of its content, but in return it will have access to all the analytics and data that sits behind the audience consumption of what these ‘makers’ produce and distribute online. Not only is Youtube reinventing itself, but Disney is reinventing itself too.

So what’s going on? A Millward Brown study in March of this year, found mobile to have become ‘the first screen’, and it seems to follow that a battle for the delivery of mobile video content will now ensue.

In Youtube’s corner of course it has ‘search’. Every time you search there is an intent behind that search. You are looking to answer, find or buy something very specific. And Google knows specifically what that is. It is probably only a small step for Youtube to start creating different programming strands served up to different people at different times with updates and adaptations delivered in real-time: true TV targeting.

The problem is though that it is sometimes hard to find what you are looking for when it is content. Youtube grew organically and there are so many videos and so many channels on Youtube that is hard for the best content to pop up and find you, as it does on traditional TV. This is perhaps why YouTube is nurturing some of its super users who attract big audiences, to the point where they become ‘YouTube celebrities’. They may be everyday users, but they have the power to act as signposts to bigger and better content, just like an on-air promo on TV might.

PewDiePie is one such celeb. A cross between Charlie Brooker and Ashton Kutcher he is the most popular person on Youtube, getting over 25m subscribers who spend anywhere in the range of 20 minutes watching his videos.

And then there is Lindsey Stirling who has gone from being an America’s Got Talent TV reject to an international dub-step violinist on Youtube selling over 265,000 copies of Shatter Me her debut album in the US, with Platinum and Gold discs across Europe, without any traditional mass marketing. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are most likely to blame for the worldwide phenomenon that was Gangnam Style and that was also where Justin Bieber was discovered (ok, there’s always a downside). But the shift is evident: amongst millennials, YT celebs are beginning to rival TV celebs.

And as if to mark these very shifts, BAFTA Television Awards will for the first time this year extend eligibility to web-based broadcasters, giving House of Cards a chance of winning a TV BAFTA without it ever having ‘aired’ on TV. How long before YouTube is eligible?

Whatever the future, one thing’s for sure: Youtube which was built by coders will be evolved by creatives. In order to compete with TV, Youtube can afford to now offer only the best in content. That content will be made by those who have craft-skills in creative, regardless of whether it appears on mobile screens or smart TV screens.

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