Friday, December 17, 2010

YouTube, Is It Going To Be My Tube Forever?

youtube-logo(2)YouTube, that crown jewel of the Web 2.0 fleet that includes everything from Blogspot to Flickr, is getting hungry.

The popular video sharing site wormed its way into our hearts in 2005 with clips of babies laughing and dudes playing guitar in their bedrooms.  Sure, ripped episodes of stuff like The Daily Show helped the hits climb, but the America’s Funniest Home Videos culture helped YouTube spawn viral hit after viral hit long after the copyright lawyers took down the TV.

Google’s acquisition of the site only exacerbated its growth.  Powerful search algorithms joined forces with a vast database of user-generated videos, assuring that anyone interested in learning about cats would be greeted with adorable feline footage on the first page of search results

It appears as if Google is no longer content to have YouTube serve as the Internet’s home movie repository.  Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the site was negotiating a deal to purchase Next New Networks, an online video production company.

Why on Google Earth would they do such a thing?

The Hot, New Thing

You may not know the name, but anyone who’s been the Internet in the last few months (so, probably you) has seen some of Next New Networks’ work.  Their site BarelyPolitical.com is home to, among others, The Gregory Brothers, the folks behind “Auto-Tune the News.”  You may remember their remix of one man’s warning for a crazy world – the “Bed Intruder Song.  It was recently named the most-viewed YouTube video of 2010.

This song made it onto the Billboard charts. I’m not kidding.

Next New Networks partners with video creators as well as a slew of online distributors (your YouTubes, Hulus, blip.tvs, etc.), creating a broad entertainment network.  Their job: find, develop, and promote the creators, then pitch them to the distributors and secure advertising revenue.  It’s not a bad niche they’ve carved out for themselves.  Finding listeners/viewers/readers is the hardest part about creating web content, and finding a dedicated middleman can go a long way if that person knows what they’re doing.

From Provider to Creator

So far, YouTube’s function has been to receive and disseminate content.  It’s quite easy to upload a clip to YouTube (try it sometime), and it’s even easier to find one.  However, acquiring a company like Next New Networks would move YouTube a step closer to the role of content creator.

This isn’t exactly new ground for YouTube.  It took its Partners Program to the next level this past July when it announced a series of Partners Grants, effectively “an advance against the partner's future YouTube revenue share” that will “allow partners to invest in better cameras, achieve higher production quality, expand their marketing efforts, expand their staff, or just hire more talent.”  As of now, it’s a tight-lipped operation.  There’s no application.  YouTube simply takes a look at your stuff and goes, “Have some money, why not!”  Next New Networks has already benefited from this capital, which helped make its Ke$ha parody the  second-most-viewed video this year.

Gross.

YouTube’s also been experimenting with live programming, something for which us hacks with a webcam usually turn to Justin.tv or Ustream.  In November 2008, YouTube broadcast its first live concert, and it briefly experimented with a live-streaming platform just this past September.  Some hailed the move as genius and groundbreaking, while others, notably Slate’s James Ledbetter, said there was no reason to get all excited just yet.  He argues that, while things like live Arcade Fire concerts are cool, there are still a number of barriers between the current experience and the ideal for which YouTube strives.

The site wants to provide more than just access to our collective creativity, it seems.  What better way than to purchase its own.

But Really, Why Now and What Next?

The potential Next New Networks acquisition would give YouTube direct control over a huge amount of web-specific content.  No longer is it just a library of funny cat videos and groin shots.  It becomes a catalog of shows designed specifically to be viewed in browsers and on iPads. 

Technically, it already is that catalog, as all of these shows wisely use the largest video distributor on the block, but the rising popularity of services like Hulu and Netflix Instant mean a growing audience of viewers who expect more from the web than whatever two dudes can make with Garage Band and a green screen.  Investing in creators of Internet video is one way to compete with more traditional content providers (cable and network TV) who are, in turn, competing with YouTube.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told the New York Times that Google wasn’t completely opposed to the idea of something like this Next New Networks deal.  “You never say never. We’ve tried to not cross that line,” he hemmed and hawed last November.  I can’t imagine it’s easy to launch something like Google TV and not want higher-quality YouTube content getting primacy. 

Of course, this will all depend on whether or not there’s demand for these videos.  The “Bed Intruder” numbers would indicate that there is, but the success of network TV online suggests that maybe we’ve woken from our Web 2.0 dream of a user-generated world.  The inevitable (and perhaps necessary) presence of advertising causes companies to see our creations as potential revenue, thus homogenizing them for improved marketability.  Worst case scenario: the “You” in YouTube ceases to mean all of us and includes only those off whom Google can make a buck. 

And what a shame that would be.  Then there’d be no place in the world for craziness like this:

This never gets old.