Is Youtube a TV Channel?

In an interview with Broadcast Magazine last week, Simon Cowell suggested that Youtube could soon be considered competition for traditional TV Channels:

“There’ll be a point in the not-too-distant future when we’ll be able to watch TV and YouTube will be Channel 6. When we reach that point, they’re going to be serious competition.”

The comment comes just after the X Factor channel on Youtube joined Syco’s Britain’s Got Talent to become one of the few UK channels to top 1 billion views, closely followed by the BBC. Taking into account Youtube’s 2011 redesign to focus navigation around channels and the launch of its Original Content channels in the US and Europe, is Cowell right? Is Youtube becoming more and more like a to a ‘traditional’ TV Channel?

What is a TV Channel?
To answer the question, we need to remind ourselves what we mean by a TV Channel. Nowadays, channels are navigational elements – brands that convey to the audience a set of values about their programming schedule. But originally, channels and schedules were a solution to a specific problem – when you could broadcast content over a network all day (rather than the limited duration of a theatre or opera programme), what kind of structure would help audiences know when your content was available?

The first people to have this problem were the early ‘telephone newspapers’ created in the late 19th Century. They thought that telephones would be used to broadcast, not just for person-to-person conversation, and invited users to subscribe to content available on special one-way telephones installed in their homes.

The Telefon Hirmondo in Budapest was one of the most successful telephone newspapers, with around 15,000 subscribers at its peak. They solved the problem of how to organise content for their 12hr daily broadcasts by creating ‘issues’ – what we would now call ‘schedules’, carving the day up into chunks of hours or part hours. Here’s a sample of a Telefon Hirmondo ‘issue’:

2:30 PM 3:00 PM Parliamentary and local news.
3:00 PM 3:15 PM Latest exchange reports.
3:15 PM 4:00 PM Weather, parliamentary, legal, theatrical, fashion and sporting news.
4:00 PM 4:30 PM Latest exchange reports and general news.
4:30 PM 6:30 PM Regimental bands.
7:00 PM 8:15 PM Opera.

As the broadcast technologies of radio and then television emerged, they adopted the structure of these ‘issues’, and over a century later, we’re still organising broadcast content in pretty much the same way. The complex art of organising content for optimal viewing – the art of ‘scheduling’ – became one of the critical skills in broadcasting, defining the success of one channel over another, and therefore the price of advertising on that channel. A traditional TV channel is, in essence, its schedule.

What is a ‘channel’ on Youtube?
Youtube has traditionally been seen as a platform, not a channel. Rather than an editorialised schedule of content, it’s an open, searchable platform, allowing users to upload as much or as little content as they want, and for audiences to view content on those same terms. As the platform grew over the last 10 years, video views emerged as the most common metric of attention, with success seen purely in terms of the highest number of views. Reaching 1bn views is a significant milestone, one that only 50 channels have currently achieved.

But since the redesign, Youtube have pushed for subscribers to be the core metric, and for creators to focus on channels rather than individual videos. But Youtube videos are shared and circulated in lots of different ways, and the patterns of attention around videos are way more complex than broadcast viewing. Channel subscriptions are not yet the most popular way to find content on Youtube, with most viewing sessions starting with organic search – Youtube is the second biggest search engine on the internet. Youtube’s channel strategy is an attempt to change this, and to try to encourage more loyalty and ‘channel-like’ behaviour in its audience. The aim is to get longer viewing sessions, and to raise the channel brands on Youtube above individual videos, making it more suitable for the kind of viewing patterns expected on smart TVs in the living room. But this transition to a channel strategy is still in its early days.

What makes a successful Youtube channel?
As Youtube makes the transition from videos to channels, its worth comparing the list of most viewed videos to the list of the top 50 most subscribed channels on Youtube. The top of the most viewed list is dominated by mainstream content brands and talent-branded VEVO channels. Here’s the top 10 channels by video views:

Universalmusicgroup 6,911,136,702
Machinima 3,668,308,520
JustinBieberVEVO 2,860,897,761
RihannaVEVO 2,756,231,298
expertvillage 2,568,074,626
LadyGagaVEVO 2,270,263,760
AtlanticVideos 2,050,668,530
EminemVEVO 2,030,339,362
RayWilliamJohnson 1,984,191,369
IGNentertainment 1,935,914,288

Whereas the most subscribed is dominated by Youtube-native talent channels – Rihanna is the only VEVO channel to make the top 30 most subscribed. Here’s the top 10 most subscribed channels:

RayWilliamJohnson 5,900,000
nigahiga 5,700,000
smosh 5,400,000
Machinima 4,800,000
collegehumour 2,900,000
realannoyingorange 2,500,000
BlueXephos 2,400,000
thelonelyisland 2,400,000
RihannaVEVO 2,360,000

This illustrates the different strategies being using to make successful Youtube content. For some, the brand or talent is established enough outside of Youtube to drive views through organic search alone – this explains the number of VEVO channels in the top 50 video views list. Channels without other sources of traffic have to work harder to get attention to their content – this is why the top 10 most subscribed channels are Youtube-native comedy and games channels.

What’s interesting is when you look at the amount of work people put in to get subscribers. If we divide the number of subscribers by the number of videos uploaded to the channel, we get an unscientific, but interesting statistic – the average number of subscribers added per video. Here’s the channels that have done the least work to get their subscribers:

LMFAOVEVO 58,621
nigahiga 45,238
RihannaVEVO 32,329
KatyPerryVEVO 30,508
thelonelyisland 28,916
Universalmusicgroup 26,324
JustinBieberVEVO 25,085
JenniferLopezVEVO 24,344
PitbullVEVO 23,404
smosh 21,429
ChrisBrownVEVO 20,021

And here’s the channels that have worked the hardest, sometimes only adding a handful of subscribers per video upload:

rajshri 2
Associated Press 4
CBS 6
expertvillage 8
muyap 15
IGNentertainment 24
BBC 42
clevverTV 59
Spinninrec 153
Machinima 224
barelypolitical 261

Its interesting how many ‘traditional’ broadcasters are in that second list – AP, CBS and the BBC. And just out of this list, The Ellen Show comes in at number 12, TheXFactorUK at number 14, and BritainsGotTalent09 at number 16.

There are so many competing strategies on Youtube right now that comparisons like this are not hugely revealing, but there do seem to be three kinds of channels emerging:

Talent-led channels – broadly music based, views driven by organic search, very few uploads
Broadcast-led channels – linked to existing TV shows/channels, lots of uploads, (mainly clips), views largely driven by organic search, but few subscribers
Youtube-native channels – lots of subscribers, lots of uploads, most traffic driven by links within the Youtube platform

So, will Youtube become a TV Channel?
It’s early days in Youtube’s channel strategy, but at the moment, its hard to see the different strategies that talent, broadcast brands and native Youtube creators are using merging into something as coherent and consistent as a traditional TV channel brand. When Simon Cowell looks at Youtube and recognises it as a ‘TV Channel’, he’s seeing it from the perspective of someone who has been immersed in broadcast TV for years, and is more familiar with those patterns of attention than some of the new patterns emerging from native Youtube talent. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so a man with some of the biggest broadcast TV brands will look at Youtube, which sometimes look like traditional TV, and assume that it will eventually become like the things he has spent his life building.

I think its more likely that TV channels will become a bit more like Youtube. If Smart TVs and other VOD boxes take off, we’ll start to see some new user journeys around content on our TV – organic search, subscriptions to channels/shows we love, social and algorithmic recommendations, etc. This will change the way that schedulers think about TV channels as much as the rise of multichannel satellite and cable did in the 1990s. Channel 4′s 4/7 channel on Wikipedia – scheduled partly in response to online buzz about Channel 4 shows – is an early indicator of this trend. Simon Cowell might be looking at the right thing, but from the wrong perspective – its not about Youtube becoming more like TV Channels, but about TV Channels becoming more like Youtube.

The Groupon Shop

The Groupon Shop

Just around the corner from where I live is this shop. Its in a small parade opposite Portslade train station, along with a couple of barbers, a greasy spoon cafe, a bric-a-brac shop and a newsagents. The parade is typical of the kind you find at the fringes of suburbia, where town centres dwindle to broadly residential areas with a few clusters of shops squeezed in between.

This shop used to be a record store, with a couple of rare items on the wall and the usual bargain bucket MOR in the shelves. After that, it sold second-hand white goods, and then about 6 months ago it had a brief refit before re-opening as a place to get your feet nibbled at by small fish. My daughters found this fascinating, and would peek in the window whenever anyone was getting a treatment, at least until the owners put up blinds to stop them gawping.

I was fascinated for a different reason. The shop seemed to generate business solely through Groupon promotions, and was doing alright for a while, with a steady stream of feet walking in for the Garra fish to nibble. Then, a couple of months ago, the blinds were open more often, the fish looked like they were getting hungrier, and the only thing to see was a bored-looking assistant.

A few more posters started appearing in the window for other services – photo printing on banners or canvases, and OoNaNa body and bath treatments. I imagine the owners were picking up other business ideas from Groupon that had that magic formula – small up front investment in stock/equipment plus niche demand times groupon promotion equals a profit marginal enough to pay the rent on a small shop in a fringe suburb. The window started to look like a physical version of the ads you see on bad websites – it was only a matter of time before teeth-whitening or simple weight-loss remedies starting appearing.

I wonder if this is the future of retail for some shopping areas in these austere times? It feels like the hipster-led ‘pop-up shop‘ idea has trickled down to something approaching a Demand Media business model for physical shops. The Groupon Shop feels like a brave, but slightly clumsy, attempt at algorithmically-driven retail, in which a tiny cost base can be the justification for a series of iterative attempts at creating a viable business model. Previously, only charity shops have had a cost-base low enough to take over the empty high st in a recession, but perhaps Groupon shops are a sign of things to come?

This feels like James Bridle‘s New Aesthetic pushing through into suburbia, in the most vernacular way imaginable. The future of retail is not malls full of check-out-less Apple Stores and immaculately groomed geniuses. Its marginal profits promised by multiple algorithms indexing millions of search queries, emerging like weeds in the gaps in the High St vacated by chain stores who have themselves been eaten by the remorseless efficiency of the Internet.

Or at least it might be, if the Groupon Shop wasn’t closing, perfectly mirroring the bubble of Groupon itself. What will appear there next? I’d like to think the owners will have another try, learning to iterate quicker, and discovering another couple of dozen business models that they can pick up and discard based on the algorithms of coupon sites. Maybe they need to be more like Zynga, who are the current masters of extremely rapid iteration. I’d quite like to buy our milk and eggs from a Farmville shop.

[Update: Just after I wrote this, NESTA tweeted a link to this high-end version of The Groupon Shop]

The New Patterns of Culture: Slow, Fast & Spiky

A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk on a panel about Marshall McLuhan in Bristol. One of the other panellists was Paul Morley, someone I greatly admire and who created many of the culture and ideas I grew up with in the 1980s (the first time I heard about Dada & Situationism was through his sleeves notes on Frankie Goes To Hollywood albums).

The panel was asked to discuss how relevant McLuhan was to 21st century digital culture, but quickly got sidetracked into a nostalgic eulogy for late 20th century culture, and in particularly Punk. Paul Morley was very dismissive of the landscape of digital culture, accusing social media networks of merely pandering to consumerist behaviours, and not creating anything of value or with real impact. From his perspective, the radical power of punk, and its impact on late 70s culture, was nowhere to be seen today.

Last night, Pete Townshend gave the John Peel lecture, and the people I follow seem divided between criticising his views on iTunes (which were really only a small part of the talk) and agreeing with his nostalgia for the role the record industry played in nurturing artists. The lecture was actually a pretty well-balanced view on the record industry today, with some specific insights into how the music business used to run, and how Apple and others could step up to play these roles.

But I think the nostalgia about the old days is misplaced. We are eliding a series of memories – about the way we consumed music, the role of companies in developing and distributing culture, and the physical artefacts themselves – into a set of assumptions about how culture should be supported, distributed and consumed. In doing this, we’re ignoring the fact that these assumptions were the product of a particular pattern of consumption, driven solely by the technical and economic drivers of the time.

In the late 20th Century, a world of limited channels for media distribution, achieving scale was incredibly hard, but the rewards were huge. With only a limited number of TV/Radio channels, or magazines, or shelf space in the shops, anything new had to displace the old. This led to a very predictable pattern of consumption, in which waves of ‘new’ content attempted, and occasionally succeeded, to break through into the main focus of audiences’ attention – the cover of NME, or Top of The Pops. Once there, the potential rewards from being in one of the few spotlights of attention were massive – easily enough to support artists for years, if they could manage to remain in the spotlight, or thereabouts.

This pattern – of working unknown in the shadows, and then ‘breaking through’ into the mainstream – is the thing we’re actually mourning when we talk about the last century. The media industries that were created around these patterns had the advantage of limited competition and stability, and as such could afford to indulge artists, or support bands over years, knowing that the reward of breaking into the spotlight would more than repay this investment.

If you grew up in this period, you learnt that this was the pattern of culture – a broad spectrum of niche, marginal culture, and a tightly defined mainstream that dominated attention. The positions of individual actors would periodically change, but the stage would remain the same.

The patterns now are very, very different. There are no technical limits to publication and distribution, but getting and focusing attention over a long period of time is a great deal harder. Scale is no longer a guarantee of stability. Production of culture is now open to anyone and everyone. Platforms and tools are becoming more central than publishers and distributors. None of this is new – our virtual book shelves are groaning with analyses of how the internet is changing content industries.

But in all of the studies of the technical and economic changes, we’ve missed the underlying shift that is driving these changes. The ways in which audiences’ attention can be driven to new culture is infinitely more complex than in the late 20th century, and its only been in the last 5 years or so that we’ve started to see what the new patterns of attention are. Some of them look familiar, with niche content organically (or calculatedly, in the case of shows like The X Factor) getting large amounts of attention. But these patterns are much more unstable that they used to be, and the rewards are nowhere near enough to offset hits and misses.

Alongside the familiar patterns of mainstream attention, there are a huge number of new patterns that could only exist in digital culture. Some of these patterns are very slow, with attention accruing over months or years, as social recommendation or small groups of fans gradually accrue around content. Some are extremely fast, synchronising audiences’ attention around a piece of culture within days, before moving on just as quickly. Some are driven by deliberate plans, orchestrated between broadcast channels and social media. Some emerge via the organic connections of lots of smaller drivers, from blogs and niche channels to SEO and twitter accounts.

But, regardless of the pattern itself, the difference is that they’re Spiky – there are no technical or economic constraints keeping the spotlight in one place anymore, so attention can move on as quickly as it arrived. This is the major shift that we are missing when we are nostalgic for the 20th century. We’re only just beginning to learn what culture looks like in spiky networks, and only just beginning to invent the companies and institutions that can survive long enough to support and invest in culture in this landscape.

Change no longer happens all at once for everyone, as it did with the rush of Punk puncturing the ennui of 1970s mainstream culture. In digital networks, change is happening everywhere, constantly, and the mainstream is a much more fragile and temporary consensus than it once was. There will still be moments when something breaks through to enough people at the same time to feel like Punk, but it won’t be the same thing. There are a hundred punk moments happening every day, if you look hard enough.

McLuhan would have understood this – he was, above all else, a master at recognising patterns in culture. What he did in the middle of the last century was point out that mass media was creating a phenomenal spotlight of attention through TV and other mass broadcast networks, and that the patterns of attention they created would be as important – financially, politically and culturally – as the content itself.

If he were alive today, I would like to think that McLuhan would be pointing out a slew of new patterns, and would be exploring the economic and cultural consequences as they emerged. Although McLuhan was a deeply religious man who resented the dominance of broadcast mainstream culture, his intellectual curiosity was fascinated by what these emerging patterns said about us. He didn’t mourn the patterns of the 19th century, but sketched out the landscape of the new culture, and was a prophet for the media industries of the last 50 years. We should take his lead, stop being nostalgic for the patterns of the last century, and start building the media industries of the future.

Life inside Seven Days

[This is a piece I wrote for Broadcast Magazine, about Seven Days, a cross-platform project I’m working on in my dayjob. Posted here as its behind a paywall on their site]

Something very interesting happened on Channel 4 last Wednesday. About half-way through the latest episode of Seven Days, one of the characters, Cassie, took out her laptop and started talking about how people were talking about her on the show’s website. Sitting at home, monitoring the performance of the site on my laptop, I saw a huge spike in traffic as thousands of other people logged onto the site to see what all the fuss was about. This spike was higher than we’d seen the week before, when the rush of people coming to the site on launch night crashed the servers, and even higher than the biggest peak we saw in the final series of Big Brother earlier this year. We’d clearly hit on something, but what was it?

For the last 11 years, Big Brother has been the poster-child for cross-platform projects – a show which was inextricably bound up in the interaction between the format, the audience and the ripples it caused in the outside world. But those ripples never made it back inside the house – we never saw BB contestants pull out a laptop and see what people were saying about them outside those high Elstree fences. The spike in traffic we saw in the middle of Seven Days was something new – it was an audience realising that they could become part of the conversation, part of the story, part of the lives of the people they were seeing on television. Cassie and the rest of the Seven Days cast were recognisably people living their own lives –in cafes, living rooms and bars – not the artificial tasks and traumas of Big Brother.

Seven Days has demonstrated that we’re living in a new world – a place where our audiences see their own lives broadcast to friends across networks like Facebook and Twitter, and where jokes, arguments and love affairs are conducted through comments and responses, likes and retweets, friending and tagging. Broadcasters have probably been a bit slow to create formats fast enough and open-ended enough to reflect the way we live our lives now. Seven Days feels likes it’s starting to explore what this might look like. It’s an exhausting, messy and complicated project to be working on, with a constant cycle of chatter going on between contributors, commissioners, producers and web teams. It’s hard, two weeks in, to get a grasp on what the show is, what it might be, and how we can best harness the intense spikes of attention we’re seeing around every episode.

I sat at home last Wednesday, watching my TV with my laptop, watching someone else reading about themselves on a laptop, whilst thousands of other people were doing the same. This is the world we’re in now, and Seven Days is an innovative and ambitious attempt to represent this world. Like Big Brother 10 years ago, it’s probably not right yet, but it does feel like the first step on a very interesting journey.

The common ground between TV and Gaming

I’ve just had an interesting email conversation with Nicholas Lovell, the excellent games consultant and Gamesbrief blogger, prompted by his appearance at the Edinburgh TV Festival on a panel about the cross over between TV and Games. The session left me very frustrated, partly because it seemed to assume that the only reason that TV people would be interested in games is if they wanted to license their IP to produce a spin-off game. Nicholas (and Paulina Bozek, who made SingStar) did give a different perspective, but this came after two long sessions that were pretty dull histories of Sony and Ninetendo’s histories in the AAA game industry.

Having spent nearly a decade working for broadcasters, I know that this isn’t the way to get a bunch of creative people excited about your sector. How much more interesting it could have been if there were more creative talent there – Ben from Zombie Cow, Darren from Littleloud, or Phil from Preloaded – to explain how their creative process works. Making a TV programme and making a game share a lot of common skills, from great writing to stunning visual production and a keen understanding of your audience. The session at the TV Festival would have been a lot more valuable for everyone involved if it had focused on these issues, rather than a history of the games industry.

I was particularly frustrated, as I’ve spent the last few years (together with Alice Taylor) trying to get broadcasters to understand that games are valuable ways of delivering public value projects, not just parasitical, licensed projects feeding off a linear TV programme’s  brand equity. The common ground between TV and Gaming isn’t licenses and IP – it is talent, stories and audiences. Its a pity that the panel in Edinburgh didn’t illustrate this.

Ed Catmull on Creativity at Pixar

This is pretty much everything I could ever say about the industry I work in, but said more effectively than I could ever say it:

“If I look at the range, you’ve got one [constraint] that is art school, I’m doing this for arts sake, Ratatouille and WALL-E clearly fall more on that side,  the other is the purely commercial side, where you’ve got a lot of films that are made purely for following a trend, if you go entirely for the art side then eventually you fail economically. if you go purely commercially then I think you fail from a soul point of view… we’ve got these elements pulling on both sides, the art side and the commercial side… and the the trick is not to let one side win.  That fundamentally successful companies are unstable. And where we have to operate is in that unstable place. And the forces of conservatism which are very strong and they want to go to a safe place. I want to go to the same place for money, I want to go and be wild and creative, or I want to have enough time for this, and each one of those guys are pulling, and if any one of them wins, we lose. And i just want to stay right there in the middle.”

Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar.
From Scott Berkun’s Blog

There’s a reason Pixar is the most admired and consistently brilliant creative company in the world right now. Its because Ed Catmull runs it.


5 things I’m thinking about

Following Alice and Dan, here’s my contribution to the ‘blog 5 things you’re thinking about’ meme:

1- Attention Patterns
I’ve been getting very obsessed with the patterns of attention around content and stories lately. For example, the huge spikes of synchronous attention we see around live events like Reality TV, breaking news stories or sporting events; or the binge-like, asynchronous patterns of attention around cult drama, as people time-shift their viewing with PVRs, VOD or box-sets. Then there’s the katamari-damacy style rolling balls of attention that mobile apps and social games get- huge, distributed balls of attention made up from tiny slivers of our lives. Are these patterns maturing now? Can we design projects based on these models, or are these patterns still unstable? I’m *way* more interested in attention patterns than I am in any particular platform or device.

2 – The Next 30%
There’s a big push in developed economies to get everyone online, as the first two waves (early adopting geeks, and people who use online tools in the workplace) are already well served. I’m interested to see what needs and uses of the internet will emerge over the next few years as new users come online. Will apps and gestural interfaces become more used than open web browsers? Will Facebook become the default experience of the Internet for most people? Will mobile be the most common route to access information networks? Or the set-top box? Or will new brands (ie Tesco) reposition themselves as gateways to information goods as well as ‘real world’ services?

3 – Recession Culture
I was in Art School in Glasgow from 90-94, during the last serious recession. It was an amazing moment of cultural invention, with musicians developing the strands of late-80s grunge, hip-hop and rave culture; indie film in rude health in the US and UK; and artists becoming entrepreneurs and putting on shows in derelict warehouses all over the UK. All this was driven by a DIY ethic that was the only real response to huge public spending cuts and poor employment opportunities. The current university-age generation are facing the same issues, and I’m perversely optimistic that we’ll see similar strange cultural shoots emerging, well outside of the reality-show-driven culture that has dominated the last 10 years. It may sound impossible now to imagine anything breaking through the hegemony of X-Factor and BGT, but I’m calling Peak Cowell around about* now*, and believe the influence of these global culture engines will slowly diminish. We need a few new culture-amplification engines to kickstart (see what I did there?) some of these new shoots, and a few new leaders in the shape of 90s pioneers like Damien Hirst, James Lavelle, Warp records, Richard Linklater and others, but I can see it happening already. And we didn’t even have the transformational power of the web back then, so this should be *really* interesting…

4 – The Underground Olympics
Related to the point above- if you want to reset the cultural barometer, you need something that is even bigger than Cowell to flick the switch. The Olympics is just such an event, and is important not just for it’s huge umbrella of activity and attention, but for the mutant strains that will emerge in its shadow. The art scene around the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow that produced Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley, Christine Borland and many others got its initial kick in opposition to the 1990 Glasgow Year of Culture, so I expect to see similar ground-level initiatives kicking against the 2012 Olympics. If the LOCOG team are smart, they’ll encourage it to happen. If they’re *really* smart, they’ll deliberately provoke it.

5 – Games Getting Boring
By this, I don’t mean games actually getting boring themselves, I mean the hype passing, and everybody finally getting used to the fact that games are a complex, successful and mature part of contemporary media culture. We’re at the top of the hype cycle at the moment, because some people are amazed that *shock!* just about everyone plays games, *shock!* some of them make a hell of a lot of money, and *shock!* they don’t have to involve sitting alone in a room pretending to shoot things. So I’m looking forward to the moment when the investors move on, some people lose a hell of a lot of money, and the mainstream press starts writing snarky “so what was all *that* about then?” post-hype articles. Because I remember the first dotcom crash, and it was just after that when things got really interesting, and the seeds of the current social web were born. Imagine that moment, but with *games*. I’m getting excited just thinking about it…

Hmmm. These have all ended up being a bit more big and wooly than I expected. But I think that’s because I sense the conditions are right for some interesting new trends, and I’m trying to see beyond the big changes in politics, culture etc that are currently right in front of our eyes. It’s more fun to try and look in the cracks, shadows and edges, even if you end up being wrong.