Television 2015: How TV Is Embracing And Nervously Sweating On YouTube Traditional television providers love YouTube. They also have to be nervous about it, given how popular it is.
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Television 2015: How TV Is Embracing And Nervously Sweating On YouTube

The "YouTube" logo. Perhaps you've seen it. Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

The "YouTube" logo. Perhaps you've seen it.

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

This is one in a series of essays running last week and this week about the state of television in 2015. The series is based on developments at the recent Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., where broadcast and cable networks, along with streaming services like Netflix, presented new and existing shows to TV critics and reporters. The entire series is available here.

YouTube, to television outlets, is a bunch of things at once. It's a competitor for sheer attention, as is everything people do for entertainment that isn't television. It's potentially a competitor in roughly the same format they're working in, as with a scripted web series. It's a source of product, as it was when Comedy Central transformed Broad City from web series to half-hour, well-reviewed TV show. It's a topic for unscripted shows, as it is with MTV's new reality show following YouTuber Todrick Hall. It's a place to distribute clips from shows that lend themselves to that kind of presentation, as it is when they put up Jimmy Fallon or James Corden bits. It's a place to promote ordinary broadcast shows with teases and clips, as it is when CBS gives Supergirl its own YouTube channel. It is also, of course, a place to fight an exhausting battle against unauthorized uploads.

Depending on the day and the circumstances, for a network, YouTube might look like a menace, a tool, a mystery, a brand extension, a training ground, a den of thieves, a harsh reality, or the equivalent of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth that will one day lead to The End Of Everything.

It's not just YouTube, of course – there are other sources of online video and certainly of web series. But the specific combination of anxiety and enthusiasm around this one outlet brings out a lot of the tension around online video in general. It also necessitates teasing out what we mean when we talk about shifts in viewing habits. Which brings us, of course, to millennials.

There's a critical difference between these three propositions: (1) "millennials don't watch television," (2) "millennials don't watch televisions," and (3) "millennials don't have cable." Headlines are very bad at distinguishing between them in stories about TV being dead or dying.

The first goes to content – the idea that the kind of longer-form episodic content that's been developed for TV is dying in favor of two-minute quick hits. The second and third, which seem to be the easiest to prove, go to delivery – the idea that less and less of people's viewing is happening on the standalone device known as a television set and/or with the help of a cable subscription. You regularly see articles pointing out that young viewers are abandoning their televisions – that they're cord-cutters – but very often, the part of the story that doesn't make it into the headline is that they still watch a lot of video. And they don't watch all of it in the form of free makeup tutorials or comedy-bro stunts or even high-quality eight-minute web series, despite the fact that those things are very popular and, lots of marketers are hoping, very influential. They still watch stuff on Netflix, they share HBO GO passwords, and they stream shows free from networks. And yes, sometimes they actually watch television when it's happening, though certainly not like people once did.

Though studies of viewing habits are ubiquitous, they tend to break down viewing in all different ways, which – together with how fast everything is changing and how challenging it still is to measure viewing – makes this a hard thing to get your arms around. How much of the time that a young viewer spends watching short videos on YouTube comes out of time they'd really otherwise spend watching long-form TV, and how much of it is part of the general Doing Nothing part of the schedule familiar to everyone and certainly not new to teenagers? (When I was 16, we spent a lot of time watching short videos that weren't really part of "linear television," too.) Do we count a show you binge-watch on Netflix as old media or new media? Does it depend on how old it is? How reliable is a person's own estimate of how much time she spent watching little videos that were shared on Twitter if you survey her a week later?

Moreover, there's a good discussion in a recent episode of the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, where he talks about cable news and the difficulty of telling when changes in viewing are generational versus age-related: in other words, which of the changes in viewing patterns among college students, for instance, are related to the fact that they're of a permanently different generation and which are related to the fact that they're currently college students? The New York Times ran a feature in late 2014 that touched on the issue of millennials not having TVs in their dorm rooms. Frankly, lots of my friends didn't have them in their dorm rooms either; that doesn't mean they don't have them now. For us, that was an age effect as opposed to a generational effect. For them, who knows? Compare that to landlines: the first 25-year-olds to go without landlines probably didn't later develop a sudden desire to possess them when they got older.

So, back to YouTube: everybody knows YouTube is powerful; that's why networks are trying to grab onto it. Everybody knows teenagers spend a lot of time there; that's why it's one of the places networks are trying to reach them.

One way they're doing it is simple absorption. As mentioned above, MTV has a reality show coming up that follows Todrick Hall, whose YouTube channel has more than 1.6 million subscribers, as he puts together his videos. Hall has performed on Broadway in The Color Purple and Memphis in addition to having a season of American Idol under his belt, so he's no stranger to adapting your method of performance depending on what you perceive to be the best path. And he said at press tour that it was part of his deal with MTV that the entire final video wouldn't be available on the show; you'd see part of it, and then you'd have to go to his YouTube channel for the rest. So MTV gets a show, and presumably gets his big YouTube audience interested in it, and he gets MTV viewers sent back from the show to his YouTube channel, which remains his own brand.

Hulu – not even itself traditional television, but still an outlet making original shows – also has a new unscripted series, coming in October, following online video stars. RocketJump is an outlet that specializes in effects and is responsible for the series Video Game High School. Their YouTube channel has more than 7.6 million subscribers, and it's not even the only place to find their stuff. Their Hulu show, called RocketJump: The Series, will premiere a new short each week out of their shop. Hulu will have the short exclusively for one week, after which it will be available on their channels. They, like Todrick Hall, have no intention of making their existing fans angry by seeming to have abandoned them for television – even new-style television like Hulu. The rest of the show will be a behind-the-scenes look at how the operation works, how the video was made, and "how [they] interact," according to RocketJump's Ben Waller.

But as much as outlets like Hulu and MTV are trying to figure out how to make friends with YouTube, at least to some degree, it's not all that easy to interpret its popularity and influence. If it's replacing downtime activities other than regular TV, that's ominous only in the way that, say, gaming is: everybody's entertainment hours are limited. If you think of it as a shift to similar content on a different platform people trust more, that's harder to solve. If it's indicative of a generational, permanent refusal to engage with anything for more than about 10 minutes at a time, that's going to require at the very least a major rethinking of how content is made and organized. To be honest, my own generation was very much accused of ushering this part in first, precisely because of the influence and popularity of MTV and our supposed need for everything to be cut into teeny, fast-moving pieces. Perhaps this is simply the next level.

The most concerning scenario for creators and networks, though, may be the thought that it's the end of valuing video content enough to pay for it in any form — the idea that brought about premium television. It won't matter how little you charge for standalone, a la carte subscriptions to premium channels if the people you're trying to reach don't see any reason to pay anything other than nothing. No matter what your business model, you will lose to zero dollars and zero cents if people don't perceive a difference between a show that can be made for practically nothing and a show that requires a large production budget and therefore has to make that money back somewhere. You can hope people will consider the production values of Game Of Thrones worth the money, but what if they'd be just as happy seeing the same stories played out using popsicle sticks with faces on them, provided that's free?

Furthermore, YouTube has its own ways of paying creators, but as NPR recently reported, those efforts are running into problems of their own as videos that originate on YouTube wind up on Facebook (and undoubtedly plenty of other places), where the payment model breaks. Creators may wind up needing heavy bats with which to pursue people who try to break down their ability to get paid, and those heavy bats may mean teaming up with the very gatekeeper corporations some of them enjoy living without.

There's a very weird possible future (one of many) where YouTube – ad-supported, free, reliant on sheer number of views and viewers, selling content in bulk by volume – responds to its position as the supposed home base of the young by becoming effectively what broadcast television was before and outside cable. There's a version of where we're going, not inevitable by any means but not implausible, where we're headed directly back to the broadest comedy, the grabbiest stunts, the most marketable personalities, the most invasive marketing, and the most inoffensive, advertiser-loving content, because that's the only path.

So don't buy your jetpack just yet.