|New Layer of Content Amid Chaos on YouTube |
By BEN SISARIO
New York Times
March 11, 2012
For a glimpse at the next phase in YouTube’s evolution, look no further than a stray crutch and a $20 birthday cake for Justin Bieber.
Those were among the props at a recent taping for MyIsh, a new music channel on YouTube. Filming in the small back room of a Manhattan television office, MyIsh tries to capture the low-budget charm of early MTV, with sets that consist of a few painted pallets and three young hosts who trade unscripted zingers about the day’s pop-culture news.
“I feel like Lindsay Lohan is one injection away from looking like Madonna,” said Hesta Prynn, a flame-haired D.J. who is one of the hosts. Behind her, as if to demonstrate the show’s casual semiprofessionalism, her black crutch, used since a recent running injury, leaned against the set.
MyIsh is one of about 100 entertainment channels being introduced on YouTube as part of the site’s broader mission to bring some order to its chaos. By introducing a layer of content closer to television than home video, YouTube believes, it will attract a steadier stream of viewers and advertisers, and the company is spending more than $100 million to help develop the channels.
“We want to make it easier and easier for viewers to find the content they love,” Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s global head of content, said in a phone interview. “Which,” he added after a pause, “is especially challenging when you have a lot of it coming every second.”
The channels — dedicated to topics like news, music, gaming, parenting and fashion — are also part of an escalating battle among Internet platforms like Hulu, Netflix and AOL to capture more of television’s advertising dollars by creating original content. According to eMarketer, a research firm, ad spending for online video should rise 55 percent this year, to $3.1 billion. But that is still a fraction of the $60 billion spent on television.
For YouTube, the gamble is whether audiences used to YouTube’s anarchic energy will subscribe to the channels in numbers significant enough to entice advertisers to pay higher rates. Google will present the channels to advertisers in New York in May at the Digital Content NewFronts — a play on the television networks’ annual ad pitches, called upfronts — alongside Hulu, Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft.
John Lisko, the executive communications director of the advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi in Los Angeles, described YouTube’s effort as “difficult and exhilarating.” To make the channels succeed, he said, YouTube must continue to invest in the channels and provide advertisers with audience data comparable to what is available on television.
Although the plan for the channels was announced in October, many of the outlets are only starting up now, and many music-related channels are among the first. They include MyIsh; the Warner Sound, an umbrella for acts from the Warner Music Group; Pitchfork.tv and Noisey, which both cover alternative music; Bonnaroo365 and the Bowery Presents, which have live concert streams; and a branch of the cable channel Fuse.
The channels will get some promotion from YouTube, including placement on the site’s home page. Google has also been coaching the partners assiduously on the arts of online self-promotion, with tactics like search-engine optimization and the use of annotations, the links and text that pop up while a video plays.
But the content is in the partners’ hands, which for some means a degree of cultural adjustment.
“We’re playing by YouTube rules, which is fast, cheap and slightly out of control,” said Michael Hirschorn, a former VH1 executive whose company, IconicTV, has three YouTube channels in development. MyIsh’s production budget, Mr. Hirschorn said, comes entirely from Google, whose investment in all channels is counted as an advance against advertising revenues.
Vice, the youth-media conglomerate behind Noisey, already produces reams of online video, and the company has distribution deals with major partners like HBO and CNN. “We are pioneers of premium online video,” Shane Smith, one of Vice’s founders, said.
But Vice is also looking at its Google deal as a way to go for up-to-the-minute timeliness — and a potentially huge audience — through quantity and quick turnaround.
Last Thursday a small Noisey crew followed Joey Bada$$, a 17-year-old Brooklyn rapper, as he visited his high school and interviewed his teachers and principal. “Wall of fame,” he said as he pointed to the names of alumni from his school, Edward R. Murrow High School, “which I hope to be on one day.”
Others are pushing for higher production values. Warner Music hired Ocean MacAdams, a former MTV producer, to run the Warner Sound. Its programming slate resembles that of a cable TV channel, with concerts, documentaries and series built around the label’s stars, like “Cee Lo Green Presents ManTazia” and a choose-your-own-adventure sitcom with Cody Simpson.
Over the next year, the Bowery Presents, a promoter in New York, will run live streams of 12 concerts filmed with up to 11 cameras and will also post dozens of taped shows and short films. The first live event featured the band Sleigh Bells last month, during which promotional banners ran across every page on YouTube. Next is Kasabian on March 22.
“We’re trying to present music online in a way that it doesn’t feel like an award show, where everything is completely staged,” said Jesse Mann, general manager of the Bowery Presents.
Several producers said they had to be careful not to be too slick. Anything too closely resembling television, they said, would be rejected by audiences on YouTube, which was built on grainy, unprofessional, user-generated content.
“A lot of the content partners don’t want to feel like we’re coming in and saying, ‘O.K., the big boys are here; we’re going to show you how it’s done,’ ” Mr. MacAdams said. “If you have that attitude with YouTube, you’re destined to fail.”
The eventual payoff for the channels is unclear.
YouTube has exclusive rights to the videos for at least a year, and it has not said whether it will continue to finance the channels after those rights expire. (The channel producers own all their content.) A hit channel might bring in enough ad revenue to justify continuing the production, and Google’s standard advertising agreements give content owners a majority share of advertising revenue.
A challenge, however, is determining what counts as a hit when homemade viral videos routinely rack up millions of views. Some channels and groups in YouTube’s plan, like Machinima and Maker Studios, are already well established. But many are starting from scratch: after five days, MyIsh’s birthday tribute to Mr. Bieber last week had about 700 views.
The money YouTube has already spent, said Mr. Lisko, of Saatchi & Saatchi, “was the cost of entry.” He added, “They are going to have to invest significantly more, and do it on an ongoing basis and across multiple genres to really develop content.”
Mr. Kyncl, of YouTube, said that the measurement of success would not be with any one video but with the steady audience a channel could build over time by attracting subscribers.
“Yes, it’s nice if one channel gets one video that has 100 million views, but I care about their aggregate number of views,” he said. “What we are effectively doing is giving the content players a chance to play a little more in the equity game of audience aggregation.
“If that happens to align with our interest for viewers,” he added, “it’s fantastic. We love that.”