YouTube is finally rolling out live streaming on its platform, with a special page that will feature current and upcoming live events. YouTube is also trying to attract audiences with new channels of premium programming. It seems to be part of a strategy to turn the leading video sharing web site into a more substantial online video platform. It is difficult to believe that YouTube is only six years old. So what does YouTube want to be when it grows up?
Its slogan “Broadcast Yourself” may be less prominent than it once was but YouTube has generally been concerned not with broadcasting in the traditional sense but with publishing clips that can be viewed asynchronously on demand, the most popular of which may receive tens of millions of views over time.
Users wishing to stream live have relied instead on services like Ustream, Livestream and Justin.tv, while broadcasters have made their own arrangements, generally with content distribution networks like Akamai.
YouTube has previously used third-party content distribution networks to deliver live streams on an occasional basis, including musical events and cricket matches from the Indian Premier League.
The new live streaming platform has been built on YouTube infrastructure, rather than using a third-party content distribution network. It was first tested last September but by many reports the results were technically disappointing and viewer numbers more so, even for a test.
The YouTube live streaming service will initially be available to selected partners, with the aim of enabling thousands of them in the months ahead. Partners will be able to stream live from their channels at any time and schedule future events to notify their subscribers. They must have accounts in good standing, with no copyright or terms of service infringements.
Selected partners include established media companies through to relatively unknown individuals, while some regular video contributors with an established following have been expressing dismay that they have yet to be accepted.
By far and away the largest online video platform, YouTube receives more than two billion views a day, more than any single broadcaster.
YouTube has the potential to bring live video broadcasting to the masses. While new names may not deliver huge audiences, collectively they could account for significant numbers. The secret of YouTube’s success lies in aggregating billions of views across hundreds of millions of clips.
Josh Siegel, YouTube product manager, told the Financial Times that the live launch was “like re-creating YouTube from scratch”. He hinted: “we’re going to see a lot of activity in the sports arena”.
Live sport is an obvious application, assuming that YouTube, owned by Google, can acquire the relevant rights. With a worldwide audience, Google could potentially deliver larger numbers than many pay-television platforms.
Not that YouTube has yet delivered anything like this. The India Times Indian Premier League channel has so far produced fewer than 350,000 views in total.
YouTube is also reported to be planning to spend up to $100 million on original programming produced exclusively for online distribution. According to the Wall Street Journal YouTube is aiming to offer around 20 premium channels, each featuring five to ten hours of premium programming a week.
The company recently bought Next New Networks, a startup company that specializes in developing, packaging, and promoting original online video programming. With more than 60 independent producers it has built a following of more than six million subscribers. Through a new initiative called YouTube Next it plans to invest in what would traditionally be called programme or format development to support media partners.
YouTube says that it has hundreds of media partners “making six figures a year” but aims to grow that significantly. However, cultivating creativity might prove more challenging than scaling technology.
Parent company Google also acquired Widevine, a specialist in online video encryption and distribution. That was seen as significant in terms of allowing Google, and by extension YouTube, to secure premium programming, in both senses of the word.
YouTube has had only limited success in signing up premium programming from professional producers and it is not for want of trying or lack of cash.
Companies like Netflix have been prepared to invest significant sums to secure online streaming rights to studio programming. Netflix will spend around a billion dollars this year on programming, paying an estimated million dollars an episode for the rights to television series like Mad Men.
Rather than the traditional model of commissioning or acquisition, YouTube seems to be more interested in growing its own talent, offering the incentive of sharing in advertising revenue. This may be a shrewd long-term strategy or it may reflect the online culture from which Google and YouTube have developed.
Given that its revenues are mainly reliant on advertising, Google has so far showed little affinity or empathy with the world of mainstream media.
Before buying YouTube for $1.65 billion in November 2006, Google had launched its own video site which failed to make much of an impression with an apparently random selection of shows including vintage episodes of I Love Lucy.
YouTube has had a difficult relationship with rights owners over concerns about unauthorised distribution of copyright material, although it has done much to improve its reputation for responsibility in this regard.
The launch of Google TV was undermined when the major American networks blocked it from their online video services.
YouTube remains community driven and defies the conventional organization of traditional media. Despite the introduction of channels and playlists, it is predominantly clip orientated. It is also inherently social — designed to be shared.
Missing from YouTube are the editorial selection, packaging, presentation and promotion that characterise traditional television channels, the sense of anticipation and the creation of habit provided by the conventional schedule.
The YouTube Live channel currently features an eclectic selection including live cricket next to a lecture on the impact of the tobacco industry on global health.
In a sense, that is comparable to the experience of randomly flicking through channels on television in the hope of something interesting to watch. Whether that is a sufficiently satisfactory experience is another matter.
No doubt YouTube has as much to learn about television as broadcasters have to learn about online video.
This year Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, is due to give the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. It is the first time in its 35-year history that the lecture will be given by someone from outside the traditional broadcasting industry. YouTube will join the MediaGuardian as joint headline sponsor of the television festival. It may be a sign of the times, or perhaps a sign of things to come.