"Broadcast yourself" is the long-standing slogan of Internet video hosting giant YouTube. Founded in 2005 by three former PayPal employees, YouTube has everything from movie and TV clips, music videos, short films, vlogs, educational content and, most importantly, fuzzy animals doing improbably adorable things on camera.
YouTube videos started out as user-generated content mostly intended for viewing by friends, including mostly funny videos of babies laughing or cat fail compilations. Personal video blogs with charismatic presenters like Charlieissocoollike and iJustine became creative staples on YouTube, marking the first time corporeal communities were formed around YouTube videos. While this type of content still represents the vast majority of the videos on the site, another category soon began drawing big crowds. YouTube set up partnering deals with television content producers like the BBC to have short clips of their shows available on the sharing site. It was the first time content produced and intended for long format television viewing was being shown, legally, in short clip format for free on YouTube.
Before YouTube's current ubiquity, it became the home of a thriving tech-centric community. As a bastion for tech-related content, tech review, comparison and unboxing videos become some of the first well-produced, recurring shows that were specifically intended to be viewed on YouTube. These shows lead the way to broader geek-centric fare and the recent rise of a third type of content on the site: a wide range of shows made just for online viewing.
Cast of Space Janitors.
In early 2012, YouTube launched a pilot program, developing "Premium Channels" in an effort to bring broadcast television content to site. These channels are funded directly by YouTube as an experiment in both content and revenue generation for the site and its producers. Almost a year after their first forays with this idea, YouTube's top channels are now averaging more than a million views a week. Business tactics aside Premium Channels like Geek and Sundry, The Nerdist, and Machinima have been hard at work creating some great material. The category of "content made just for YouTube" is exploding. There are scripted sitcoms like Space Janitors, spin-offs of well-loved, but now-canceled television shows like Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, and topical shows with a regular host and a rotating cast of guests like TableTop, Wil Wheaton's show on which he plays tabletop games with his friends and other entertainers. There are dozens of shows cropping up right now and all of them have been increasing in popularity and production quality.
Veronica Belmont; Photo: The Bui Brothers
Veronica Belmont, host of many a tech-oriented web show (including Tekzilla for Revision3) and a San Francisco local, gave me some insight into how producing for YouTube has gone for her and how cross platform integration from smart phones to TVs has helped drive the new media boom. "I think it's great that YouTube is supporting content creators in this way, though we have yet to see which channels will survive to a second season. More and more people are turning to YouTube now as a means to find shows and videos to watch, especially since YouTube is available on such a wide array of set top boxes. People can watch it from their couch. This freedom allows us to create very tailored and niche-oriented content that viewers can't get from mainstream media." She and her co-host Tom Merritt have even managed to transition their formerly audio-only podcast, Sword and Laser, a sci-fi fantasy book club show, to a fully produced web show on the Geek and Sundry Channel. When asked about how the switch went she says "It's been great! The audio show and the video show are two very different animals at this point. The podcast is much more relaxed, while the video show is a lot more structured and scripted. It's just been amazing to see our vision of the show come to life, and I think our audience has responded really well. And so have authors!"
YouTube's experiment in premium content may boil down to enticing advertisers to the formerly cute cat-centric platform, but fortunately for viewers and producers alike creativity and niche programming draws crowds online. What to watch this season isn't all about TV anymore.