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Opinion: YouTube is now a TV platform, but when will it start acting like one?

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YouTube has come a long way from its humble start as a meme generator – the site that birthed the likes of the Numa Numa guy, MysteryGuitarMan, and Jenna Marbles. Today, it’s blossoming into a platform for the next generation of media and entertainment. But can YouTube really make the leap from online novelty to mainstream TV provider? Above and beyond the technological challenges, the site has an image problem it will need to address.

A quiet investment

Earlier this year, YouTube pledged $300 million to develop 100 carefully selected original content channels, some of which have yet to get off of the ground. Today, YouTube has one foot in its past as a clip factory, and another foot in its future as a TV platform. Unfortunately, YouTube’s current strategy makes it difficult for two brands co-exist on one platform.

YouTube has been shying away from publicly promoting the 100 channels it has been funneling money to. For instance, it takes three pages to find the list of YouTube Original Channels, which is buried within its “Advertising” link at the very bottom of the front page. Even on YouTube’s home page, it’s rather difficult to simply find an Original Channel. How many of you can identify a YouTube Original Channel or tell us the name of Felicia Day’s channel (no it’s not named “feliciaday” or “The Guild”)?

Not surprisingly, according to a source close to Digital Trends, the producers of the channels are for the most part left to their own devices for marketing and PR efforts. Behind the scenes, on the other hand, YouTube will support its Original Channels’ marketing efforts, but the extent of the help varies. This was more apparent when Machinima, which has been the top performing (engagement-wise) Original Channel, was publicly funded by Google.

It wouldn’t be too far off to presume that YouTube fears tainting users’ perception of the YouTube brand — the same platform we turn to for one-off videos of cats and memes. On the other hand, original Web series could potentially represent a more lucrative endeavor. At the end of the day, YouTube is a business driven by ad dollars, and not all advertisers want their messages running before clips of someone jumping into a ceiling fan.

Can Web TV ever really go mainstream?

The market for Web television remains in a fledgling state, but it seems like only a matter of time before a single Web show, like one featuring Justin Bieber or some other A-list celebrity, will open the floodgates and captivate the mainstream audience. Until that time comes, it will remain a kind of “underground” TV option.

In many ways, the rise of Web TV may parallel the rise of blogging. At one point, blogging was scorned as a second-rate authority on the news. Today we have public relations professionals jockeying to secure their clients coverage in technology blogs over even the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. And now we have Web writers crossing over into other parts of our culture, like prominent fashion blogger Bryan Boy, who is making the unprecedented jump from solo blogger to “America’s Next Top Model” judge.

YouTube is a platform, not the Web TV destination it wants to be

YouTube, too, has been driven by its community, growing thanks to the innovative thinkers that have embraced the platform. And it has capitalized on its content creator’s achievements. That said, it may need to do more than sprinkle money on channels to foster a real TV platform. The only thing keeping its YouTube personalities from making the jump to a new platform is the  competitive revenue share from earned advertising dollars. In fact YouTube is projected to earn $3.6 billion in gross revenue in 2012, according to Citi’s Mark Mahaney

To become the Web TV destination that it seeks to be, YouTube needs to accommodate the needs of its content creators. Until then, says YouTube filmmaker Freddie Wong, “It’s simply another video platform. YouTube has always been built with the masses in mind, and as such, simply can’t cater to the specific needs of content creators.”

Currently, the quality of YouTube’s Original Content and appeal isn’t sufficient to captivate mainstream audiences. According to a source who wished to remain unnamed, very few YouTube Original Channels have been performing to YouTube’s expectations. In fact, according to TubeFilter, panelists at the Digital LA NewFronts agreed that 90 percent of the funded YouTube channels will inevitably fail. But as YouTube begins to refine its strategy and experiments with its first 100 Original Channels, it may be losing its head start. Digital Broadcasting Group, Yahoo, AOL and other media properties are hot on its tail with its own Web TV shows. While YouTube is set to earn big this year, its long-term outlook is contingent on the execution and success of its channels, particularly in the coming year.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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