Green Screen Cinema Filmmaking for the 21st century

YouTube Shows Debut To Empty House

Saturday, June 06 2009 @ 12:26 AM UTC
Contributed by: Jimbo
Views: 1,958

You might have heard that YouTube is moving into long-form content. They've been acquiring low-budget episodics and back-catalog film titles and have created a new page on their site to highlight the buys called the Shows page. While I am excited to see YouTube try new things, the mix of titles is truly baffling. On the one hand they feature Funimation titles like Full Metal Panic and Fullmetal Alchemist (which were huge hits in Japan) right next to the worst web series ever produced by man, Gemini Division. And then there's the obligatory National Geographic content, which is so overexposed that they will soon be giving away the online distribution rights as a prize at the bottom of cereal boxes.

The reviews of the Shows page have not been kind. "It was," one viewer commented, "like watching the Lusitania go down."

When dissecting a failure of this magnitude a good starting place is the question of motivation. Why does YouTube need to tweak the 5.9 billion streams they serve up each month toward longer-form content? Don't they already own a pretty good space? Haven't they figured out some way to profit from that monster-sized audience?

It turns out that even after all this time YouTube still does not generate anything close to the revenue they need to operate. Bloomberg reported the other day that YouTube only sells ads against 3% of all videos on the site. Which means that 97% of their operating costs are walking out the door and never coming back.

The reason advertisers are staying away in droves is that YouTube doesn't offer what they want: identifiable shows, with guaranteed output and a clear-cut demographic. The closest thing the site has to a known entity is Michael Buckley, a man who produces titles like "VIRGIN JONAS BROTHERS! Miley Cyrus - YOU TUBE SKANK" (which was a huge hit, by the way). Though I really like Michael's work I don't think YouTube is going to win the GM account with that kind of output.

And thus, YouTube came to understand that although they had been making fun of (and illegally distributing) studio content since day one, they actually could not live without it. With the hot breath of the market on their necks, YouTube sought out the same producers they had scorned. The results of their labors are telling. In an industry built on relationships, you can't get anything accomplished once you've shown bad faith. The paucity of content on the Shows page suggests that there's been some very bad faith indeed.

Can technology dig YouTube out of this hole? I've always believed that with the right interface (which includes a social component) and advanced targeting you could take a paltry sum of content and make it appear to be a king's ransom. In the early days that's just what YouTube did. Though you might not have liked the content on YouTube's home page, it was easy to find members that thought the way you did, and find content that appealed to you. It was a wonderful experience, nothing like the dated, linear TV experience. So now that YouTube has set its sight on broad content have they been able to take the enjoyable elements of narrowcasting (which they essentially invented) and apply it to the broadcasting experience? Can they overcome their leper status in the industry and turn coal into diamonds?

Here is a screenshot of the landing page for one of YouTube's best long-form offerings:

Its perhaps the worst entertainment-related UI I have ever seen. And I've seen some bad UI. I've built some too, and as an expert in this field (bad UI, that is) let me say that the cardinal rule of displaying content is that you do not cut off the description in mid-sentence. In the Shows UI, not only do they cut off the description in mid-sentence but there is no way to continue reading the description that's been cut off! Let me explain why this is so important.

Fullmetal Alchemist is a gem, a jewel, a brilliant series that has grabbed the hearts and minds of Japan's youth. It is also one of the most complicated anime series out there. Not just in terms of plot, but also in terms of the physics of the Fullmetal Alchemist universe. The series (which has seen many installments) jumps back and forth between Earth, Earth's past and the Fullmetal world using a technology called transmutation. It's a hard sell, to say the least. The only information that YouTube gives you about this sleeper hit is "(the characters) hoped to resurrect their mother's corpse when they attempted human transmutation but their reckless defiance of alchemy's Law of Equi..."

I think YouTube has created the perfect example of how not to sell anime. After reading this description I think most viewers will conclude the series is about gravediggers, and move on. If a viewer did stick around he or she would then notice that there is no additional information regarding the series, all of the episode titles are cut off and there is no social element to the page whatsoever. It's not like this is rocket science. For example, here is a landing page at one my favorite long-form sites, Strike.TV:

Notice the high quality graphics used to sell the series, the easy access to synopsis information and the social element. All of these things make the viewer want to stay on the page, which ultimately leads to more engagement with the site. Now imagine what would happen if YouTube tried to sell the exact same content:

Sadly, this is not a doctored image. The exact same web property, Imaginary Bitches, has a home on both Strike.TV and YouTube. The Strike.TV presence is engaging and high quality, while the YouTube presence is littered with porn ads. It appears that the drive to profitability is degrading the YouTube experience. The social element of the Imaginary Bitches YouTube page is being used against the show (this is where the porn links are coming from), and in the case of the new Shows page the social component has been turned off altogether (with only an empty shell of a page remaining).

Will YouTube ever get the monetization of web video right? If even a smidgeon of the 753,976 viewers that visited the Bitches' YouTube page clicked on the Wicked ad then someone made a pile of money. But the Wicked ad is so large, and the show related graphics so underwhelming, that the ad makes more of an impression than the show. This is not good for showrunners. Shows work when sold properly. The new Shows page demonstrates that YouTube still does not have a handle on how to market long-form content (content that requires an investment on the part of the viewer). As YouTube moves out of its comfort zone and into long-form content they will find that the selling of content is as important as the delivery of it.