A year in, YouTube's channels not must-see TV, yet

Associated Press Modified: November 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm •  Published: November 12, 2012
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The first harvest, though, has not impressed some onlookers. Forrester analyst James McQuivey, who specializes in digital video and was among those who predicted YouTube's channels would be a landmark shift, has not seen the progress he expected. He would like to see YouTube try to produce some mainstream originals, as Netflix and Hulu have, in order to attract mass audiences, not just niche ones.

"If the requirement for showing progress for Google is that they've disrupted television, then they haven't met that condition," says McQuivey. "They haven't really changed the way people watch TV. That said, to have expected to do that in a year would have been kind of crazy.

"I see nothing in what's happened so far that says, 'Yep, Google has definitely sewn this up. Two, three years out, they will have changed the future of television,'" he says. "I think they've laid the groundwork from which they had learned how to do this, but it's going to require significant investment."

Perhaps the closest a YouTube channel has come to a mainstream viewing event was Red Bull's October 14 webcast of daredevil Felix Baumgartner's free-fall jump from space. Some 52 million watched the channel's live stream, a viewership that far outpaced the 7.6 million who watched it on the Discovery Channel in the U.S.

Such breakthroughs have been seldom, though. Most programming has been more of the talk show variety. Rainn Wilson gets metaphysical on his channel "Soul Pancake." Amy Poehler gives young women a role model with "Smart Girls." Shaquille O'Neal flexes a new muscle with "Comedy Shaq." Others have sought the drama of a scripted serial, like the Bryan Singer-produced sci-fi series "H+" or the female-focused "WIGS" channels from Rodrigo Garcia ("In Treatment") and Jon Avnet ("Fried Green Tomatoes").

The most popular few channels typically draw 5-10 million viewers weekly. Among the usual chart-toppers are Warner Sound, which features music videos and behind-the-scenes features on the label's acts, WWE Fan Nation, Maker Studios (a sprawling digital network of hundreds of channels), and the gaming channel Machinima Prime.

Most channels, though, receive less than 100,000 views per week and some draw just a few thousand.

Kyncl describes this stage as gear three of a five-shift process. The next iteration, he promises, "will be reserved for partners who by then are big, successful and growing fast" and will take them to "the next level." The message to content brands is clear: Get on board now, or you'll miss out.

One advance in the YouTube viewing experience has been the launch of skippable ads, which now run on about 65 percent of videos. Mehrotra says this is more palatable to both viewers and advertisers, who only pay for ads that are watched.

"TV has generally made more money by showing more and more advertising," says Mehrotra. "Our view is that we should actually show you fewer ads but make sure the ads are actually being seen."

Drawing a distinction — not a commonality — between YouTube and TV has become part of the mission statement. Kyncl stresses that YouTube's content is largely short-form, and that mobile is their "first screen," rather than TV: "We go left, TV goes right," he says.

And it's helping the amateurs catch up with the pros, handing out instruction manuals and conducting seminars, meet-ups and training programs and opening "creator spaces" — studios with available filmmaking equipment — in London and New York, with another coming this month to Los Angeles.

"The strategy is set," says Kyncl. "We are combining the worlds of content creation and we're tearing down the walls that existed before. It's not easy but I would say we're doing a pretty good job at it."

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Follow Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle