Special to Television Technology
Beyond the sheer awe surrounding Google's $1.65 billion bet on YouTube is a fundamental question about the future of TV-or more specifically about future video consumption.
Media executives and analysts quickly pondered whether, and how, the YouTube audience will watch traditional television. YouTube's deals leading up to the Google alliance-including pacts with NBC Universal, Warner Music, Sony and CBS-added to the uncertainty. Those alliances suggest both a new reliance on Internet distribution and a hedge for viewers to jump between "old" TV and the new Web video options.
The Google/YouTube alliances (dubbed "GooTube") accelerates a number of ideas that have been bubbling through the cable TV, broadcasting and Internet worlds for more than a decade. Foremost among them is Video-on-Demand (VOD), which is rapidly being introduced in the cable environment and explored for delivery via the "extra" channels of digital TV multicasting.
Internet VOD is available right now, including the frustratingly slow movie services (often because of download time) such as CinemaNow, MovieLink and Vongo. As viewers' tastes for VOD evolve, more Internet video may compete with services from cable or broadcast multicast operators.
Another competitive element is Consumer-Generated Media (CGM)-also known as user-created content-which is supposedly at the core of YouTube's appeal. Although the novelty may be fleeting, the role of a global video-making community has bounced through media companies for 30 years, since the earliest days of cable TV "public access" channels. The technical improvements in home video cameras and editing equipment have fast-tracked this sector, especially as a video-savvy generation came of age with the near-professional quality, affordable digital video tools.
The GooTube deal also raises the prospect for more video-mash-ups, the blending of Web and video content into derivative products. Today, many mash-ups online bring together elements such as Google's maps and aerial photography with listings information, such as musical performances or special interest group activities. Adding homemade video to such a service-and making it searchable, which is Google's strength-offers further creative outlets.
Broadcasters could plug into that mash-up process, using their own production capabilities or viewer-contributed content to localize newscasts or other reports. Multicasting of locally "zoned" segments enables broadcast stations to bring some of this capability to their airwaves.
Similarly, another form of CGM is "citizen journalism." Viewers are encouraged to submit homemade video to local broadcasters: content as diverse as tornado and hurricane footage to "nanny-cam" images has reached local airwaves. The year-old Current cable TV network (headed by former Vice President Al Gore) also includes heavy doses of viewer-created content, some of it funded by Current's thrifty underwriting.
GooTube is likely to encourage more such citizen journalism and other CGM, possibly opening the door for collaboration with TV stations that can cross-promote and run such content.
Since "search" is Google's fundamental building block, this core strength is likely to manifest itself in new ways with the YouTube alliance. New tools, including face and pattern recognition, music or soundtrack (dialogue) recognition or as-yet unimagined search capabilities might become part of the package. Such features would enable viewers to hunt for specific video segments with visual tools rather than text searching.
REVENGE OF THE MTV ATTENTION SPAN
YouTube, like other Internet video services, has demonstrated that short-form TV is increasingly the wave of the present. In the 25 years since MTV began indoctrinating a generation of viewers that three-minute segments constitute an appropriate TV experience, television production has increasingly catered to the short attention span. Producers may cringe when their half-hour or hour-long episodes of TV series are condensed to 120-second video clips for online and wireless transmission. But some audiences seem satisfied with those brief highlights.
Recent contradictory studies offer differing views about the appeal of mobile video on a two-inch screen. Nonetheless, decades of channel surfing and segment-hopping have bred a vast audience viewers who can "stay tuned" for only about three to four minutes at a time. YouTube along with MySpace Video, AOL Video, Grouper and dozes of other online video sites underscore the appeal of short-form content.
Broadcasters-historically chained to 30- and 60-minute program grids-may find it necessary to alter their timing or rely on viewers' use of home digital video recorders to do the shifting for themselves.
YouTube's recent deals with TV networks and studios may also be a two-edged sword. While they allow broadcast content to reach beyond the traditional distribution channels, the arrangement also enables to YouTube (and now its parent Google) to become a "sixth network," one which can commission and distribute its own programs.
Hence, the current collaboration relationships may quickly morph into a competitive situation.
If that process evolves, local TV affiliates may be in an even more precarious position. With their networks streaming shows on their own (such as CBS' InnerTube and Disney's ABC.com) plus shows and segments available via Google or other online portal, local stations will confront new challenges to create engaging local content for their broadcasts, including digital multicast channels.
One consistent question about GooTube is monetization. Since YouTube, which has relied so far on limited on-screen advertising, has yet to turn a profit, how will the new venture generate revenues? For broadcasters, the bigger question is whether customized or localized GooTube content may compete for advertising dollars.
Some analysts suggest that smaller advertisers, who cannot afford broadcast commercials, may drift toward online services, where they can more carefully target viewers. Others continue to see cross-platform campaigns as an idea connection-with short TV spots pointing viewers toward transactional Web sites with extended video product demonstrations and ordering capabilities.
In a similar vein, many media executives express concern that GooTube is Google's stepping stone toward becoming a full-fledged media empire, including launch of a TV network. Gossip about "Google TV" has flourished for a couple years, especially among "branding" experts who believe the online brand can reach into other media.
In the days after the YouTube purchase, Google CEO Eric Schmidt reportedly visited CBS, Viacom, Time Warner and other media behemoths to assure them that Google has no plans to enter the content business itself.
ADDITIVE AND ADDICTIVE
The content issue raises another major stumbling block that erupted when the GooTube alliance sprung forth. Critics, including media maverick Mark Cuban (who enriched himself when he sold his start-up Broadcast.com to Yahoo! during an earlier wave of online video frenzy), charged that YouTube's copyright violation problems are insurmountable. Much of YouTube's most popular content includes clips sliced from broadcast programming (such as "Saturday Night Live" or "Comedy Central" segments).
Supporters believe that such copyright violations can be controlled, usually through technology-but possibly via licensing-arrangements.
More perplexing and challenging for broadcasters as well as new media mavens is the audience diversion factor. Broadcast proselytizers point to data that suggests viewers are tuning in to more television; they cite Nielsen Media Research's recent report that the average U.S. household watched TV for eight hours and 14 minutes daily during the 2005-06 season, up three minutes from the previous year. Nielsen's data also indicated that young viewers-supposedly the target for new media services such as GooTube-were watching more TV shows.
Such findings suggest that TV viewing and Web usage are additive: viewers, including multitaskers, are finding more time each day to search multiple media systems. At the same time, the addictive-and viral-nature of Web video raises even more questions about future video consumption patterns.
GooTube's role in that future will continue to be watched by broadcasters.