DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Most of us think of YouTube as a place where you spend a few minutes, get a few laughs, and encounter the unexpected.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mishka, I love you. Mishka, I love you. Mishka...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ....I love you.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love you.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love you.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good girl.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love you.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I love you.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good girl.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good girl.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Say I love you.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Say I love you.

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DAVIES: Memorable. But YouTube may be changing and in a big way. These days, our Internet watching experiences are very different from our TV viewing. We'll enjoy short grainy videos on computers, but spend hours in the living room with the TV set. As technology changes in coming years, though, TV sets will offer Internet content just as easily as cable or broadcast TV. And Internet content providers like YouTube can compete for big audiences and big advertising dollars. So YouTube, which is owned by Google, is preparing to launch dozens of professionally produced channels with specialized content they hope will appeal to millions of people.

John Seabrook writes about YouTube's ambitious plans in the current issue of The New Yorker. John Seabrook is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest book is "Flash of Genius, And Other True Stories of Invention."

Well, John Seabrook, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

JOHN SEABROOK: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: You know, a long time ago there were, you know, the three major networks which could produce television which got a huge national audience. And then cable came along and fragmented, you know, the TV viewing audience. And we also saw, you know, more narrowly focused channels, food channels, a history channel, shopping channels, you know, fishing channels. Does YouTube think there's a market for even narrower niches?

SEABROOK: Yes, they definitely do. I mean they see the Asian channel, for example, which there doesn't really exist on cable, or an Asian sitcom or a transgender channel or a cricket channel or a horseback riding channel. There are a lot of sports and pastimes that have a large group of people interested in them, but they're not necessarily based in one country. 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 fairly small audience. So YouTube allows you to kind of aggregate these disparate audiences in various countries and put them together into one pretty good size chunk.

DAVIES: Right. And they're going to be, you know, commissioning, you know, professional performers or content developers to make stuff for them. Who are they asking to produce channels?

SEABROOK: Well, you know, over the last year they've had kind of a sweepstakes. The word went out, it was an open secret. YouTube wouldn't confirm it officially, but a lot of people got approached by YouTube in many different media - print, TV, movies, music, dance - and YouTube offered kind of book publishing style advances of several million dollars to people who were professional content creators who were willing to make content for one of these new YouTube channels. And they got something like 1,000 people who submitted proposals for channels and then they winnowed it down to about 100.

A lot of them are people you know. I mean Madonna is doing a dance-oriented channel. Shaquille O'Neal is doing a kind of Shaq kind of comedy channel. There's some writers of well-known TV shows. For example, Anthony Zucker who created "CSI" for CBS, is doing a sort of "Night Gallery"-like show. Amy Poehler is doing a channel. So there are quite a few sort of celebrities from the old world that we already know, and then there are some of these YouTube partners who have homegrown stars like Michelle Phan, who has a popular very beauty tips channel, who have gotten one of these advances in order to sort of, you know, have the money to create bigger production values and more elaborate scenarios.

DAVIES: Now, in terms of advertising, we're used to seeing TV peppered with like 30 and 60 second ads. On the comp – YouTube - we're used to pop-up ads. What kind of advertising will appear on YouTube channels, or is that clear yet?

SEABROOK: Well, it's not really clear yet. I mean YouTube would love to get, you know, 30 seconds or 60 second long ads that people would watch. I mean the big difference is, I think, that you're going to always have the option to click away from the ad on YouTube after a certain amount of time. And there the proposition to the advertisers is, well, yes, it's true that we're not forcing people to watch your ads the way we are on television, but when people don't click away, you know that those people are very motivated, you know, potential customers, also we know their information. Because this is all delivered over the Internet, you know a lot more about the people who are watching your ads than you do about the people who are watching your ads on television. You know, you tend to know their history on YouTube at least. You might know some of their social friends, particularly if they are linking their YouTube stuff to Facebook, and then you can get into their purchase histories and stuff like that.

So there's potentially a lot more information and potentially a much more sort of motivated audience, but you do have to get people to watch the ads. And that actually might not be a bad thing either because it might force the people who make ads to really make a great ad, an ad that you just really want to watch. And particularly that first 10 seconds of that ad, which is that part that you're going to watch before you have a chance to click away, if you can make something really super-compelling, you know, that's a win for everyone because, you know, you'll get an ad that you like to watch and the advertisers gets you. In fact, the most viral of all videos, the quickest video to a million views on YouTube, is the Old Spice, it's an ad. It's that guy, the Old Spice guy doing his thing. And I mean I think that is another thing where we look for - I think we, the distinction between advertising and program is probably going to get a little blurrier in the YouTube future.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, the fact that advertisers can, you know, can get all this data about the individuals that are viewing their stuff. As you said, I mean maybe even who some of their social relationships are, what their viewing habits are, it's kind of creepy to some people.

SEABROOK: It is kind of creepy. But you know, it's kind of creepy when you write an email and Google has got ads that are keying on words that you put in your email right next to, you know, your personal email. But, you know, you get used to it and you're willing to make these trade-offs. You get Gmail for free and it's supported by ads and, you know, you say to yourself, well, you know, hopefully Google is not going to misuse this information - that's the big question - and so you go with it.

DAVIES: I wonder if there's a risk that sort of the essence and appeal of YouTube - I mean, you know, the serendipity of finding a hilarious moment or a unique voice, you know, would be undermined by this whole new direction.

SEABROOK: It's a good question. And it's true that one of the pleasures of YouTube - two of the pleasures of YouTube have been A) the sort of anarchic nature of it, which, you know, in the early days just seemed so crazy that, you know, you could have this totally unplanned, you know, no one was in charge type feeling, so different from television. And then the other aspect of it was, as you said, the serendipity, the things that you would just stumble upon.

And I think as these new channels come in and start getting popular, it's probably going to be less likely that you're going to stumble upon things that are totally out of left field because, you know, that's just the way that the site is going to be reoriented, toward, you know, the hit makers and away from, you know, the random people.

They'll still be there but it's, I think, going to be less easy to find than it has been. And that would be kind of a loss.

DAVIES: Do you have a favorite channel, a favorite performer of yours?

SEABROOK: Yeah. I love the Gregory Brothers. I think they're musically really talented. They're great musicians. It's four - three siblings and the wife of one of the siblings.

DAVIES: Just explain what it is the Gregory Brothers do.

SEABROOK: The Gregory brothers are looking around and, well, what actually happens now is a lot of people send the Gregory Brothers YouTube videos that they have found that they think might work in their format. And if the Gregory Brothers see something they think will work as a sort of a musical piece, they'll take the, you know, the speech, person's speech, and run it through this machine that auto-tunes it so, you know, it sort of sounds like it's sung and it has kind of a musical background to it.

And then they'll sort of chop it up so that certain key phrases - in the Antoine Dawson video there was one or two phrases that keep coming back and in the "I Love Cats" it's, you know, I love cats, I love every kind of cat, becomes a kind of a chorus. So, you know, in the end you've got a song and it's also a fun thing to watch. So it's a sort of a mash-up of a video.

Yeah, like a music video but a music video based on something that didn't begin as a music video. So repurposed. That's the difference.

DAVIES: Well, John Seabrook, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

SEABROOK: Thanks, Dave. Nice to be here again.

DAVIES: Let's listen to "I Love Cats."

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DEBBIE: This is my first attempt at a eHarmony video. I'm nervous but I'm excited at the same time. So I'm going to start talking about what I like. (Singing) I love cats. I love every kind of cat. I just want to hug of all of the cats. I love every cat. I love every cat. Anyway, I am a cat lover and I love to run. I'm sorry, I'm thinking about cats. I guess I really love cats.

(Singing) I'm thinking about cats again and again and again and again and again. I think about how many don't have a home and how I should have some. I think about how cute they are and their ears and their whiskers and the nose. I just love them. And I want them - and I want them in a basket...

DAVIES: John Seabrook's piece on YouTube is in the current edition of The New Yorker. You can find some favorite YouTube video picks of the FRESH AIR staff on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, David Bianculli on Bill Moyers' return to television. This is FRESH AIR.

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