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A War To Watch: YouTube Takes On Television

YouTube has grown rapidly over the past seven years, as people share videos of piano-playing cats, kids doing precocious things, and singers demonstrating their talents. But the Google-owned video website now has its sights on an even wider audience: everyone watching TV.

"By 2016, I'm told that half of all households in the U.S. will have Internet-ready television," says New Yorker reporter John Seabrook. "[And] there is a looming battle for the living room — the control of what you watch in the living room."

In his latest New Yorker piece, Seabrook details YouTube's strategy to compete with the cable networks by developing more than 100 new professional content streams with partners like Amy Poehler, Madonna, Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Zuiker, the creator of CSI. The company hopes the new professional videos will keep YouTube's visitors on the site longer — and attract more advertising dollars.

Currently, Seabrook writes, "the average 'Tuber spends only 15 minutes a day on the site — a paltry showing when compared with the four or five hours the average American spends in front of the TV each day."

Time Equals Money

If YouTube can increase the amount of time people spend on its site or videos, it can make a lot more advertising money, Seabrook tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. And the way YouTube plans to do that is by targeting audiences through interests that may not get airtime on mainstream networks.

"They see an Asian channel, which doesn't really exist on cable, or a ... cricket channel or a horsebacking channel — there are a lot of sports and pastimes that have a lot of people interested in them, but they're not necessarily based in one country," he says. "And one of the unique things about YouTube is that it's global. So you can put together an audience of cricket lovers from many countries around the world and achieve a pretty large audience. But if you just tried to do that in one country, you'd get a small audience."

Seabrook notes that the top videos on YouTube — think episodes of TV shows and those ubiquitous cat videos — currently receive comparable traffic to the top shows on cable networks.

"It's pretty much straight-up one for one, but the difference is that people tend to watch YouTube for much shorter periods of time, partly because the episodes on YouTube tend to be only three or four minutes," he says. "People are more distractible online so they don't watch the shows online. So even though you have the same number of viewers, you don't have those viewers investing the same amount of time in YouTube that they do in television."

Channels On YouTube

YouTube is actively working to change that, says Seabrook. Since 2007, the website has offered some YouTube content-makers the opportunity to place advertising on their videos and split the profits 50/50 with the company. Currently, there are more than 30,000 people in the program — and the top video sites make a lot of money.

"About 500 make serious money, and the top 20 make close to $1 million a year and garner pretty large audiences," he says. "Some of those people are going to be making new channels [for YouTube]."

Those new channels, YouTube hopes, will appeal to an older and wider demographic.

"The big difference is that most of the user-generated content has all been amateur-based," says Seabrook. "Most of the content on YouTube now are things that my 13-year-old son loves, but [that] are a little too tween-oriented for those of us who are actual grownups. So now I think we're going to see some grown-up channels that might appeal to the rest of us."

But there is some concern, says Seabrook, that changing the serendipitous nature of YouTube will turn some people away.

"Two of the pleasures of YouTube have been a) the anarchic nature of it, which in the early days just seemed so great that you could have this unplanned, no-one-is-in-charge-type feeling, which is so different than television; and b) the serendipity, the things you would just stumble upon," he says. "And I think as these new channels come in and start getting popular, it's going to be less likely that you're going to stumble on things that are out of left field, because that's the way the site is going to be reoriented: towards the hit-makers and less towards the random people. They'll still be there, but they'll be harder to find. And that would be kind of a loss."

'Fresh Air' Staffers Pick Their Favorite YouTube Videos

1. Fake Werner Herzog Reads Where's Waldo (associate producer Heidi Saman)

2. Husky Saying 'I Love You' (producer Lauren Krenzel)

3. The Huffamoose documentary trailer (associate producer John Myers)

4. Sweet Georgia Brown med traktorkomp (producer Sam Briger)

5. Dog Surprises Officer (director Roberta Shorrock)

6. The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody (associate producer Melody Kramer)

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.