YouTube: From the Web to the Living Room Couch

Article  by  Cédric COUSSEAU  •  Published 23.11.2010  •  Updated 23.11.2010
YouTube, the start-up that introduced Internet users to video sharing, is now owned by Google and moving increasingly towards value-added content based on partnerships with industry professionals such as record companies and the media.



YouTube is the leading online video platform. This community website is the property of Google. In that regard, the Mountain View heavyweight can rely on the number one Internet page search engine and the number one image search engine. But Google has not always owned YouTube. The platform was originally an independent company, and even competed against Google and its Google Video service. But upon its launch, Google Video's other competitor, Yahoo! Video, was one step ahead in video indexing. Therefore, Google decided to focus television content digitalization to turn video into an additional source of information, alongside web pages and, later, books. YouTube surfaced in 2005. This start-up was conceived by three employees of PayPal, an online payment service company, among them Jawed Karim. This young man was struck by two events related in detail by Randall Stross in his book Planet Google (Pearson). First, he was surprised to learn in the specialized magazine Wired that a clip of a turbulent appearance of Jon Stewart on CNN shared on peer-to-peer networks had been seen by three times as many people as CNN’s audience for the original broadcast. Then, following the 2004 tsunami, which was filmed by many bystanders, he realized how technical issues made it difficult for anyone to share and watch videos on the web. Karim and his two colleagues, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, came up with the idea of offering an easy-to-use platform. Unlike Google Video, which relied on content produced by professionals and partners like the NBA, YouTube allowed everyone to send their own videos and invited them to grab their cameras and shoot their own footage, as illustrated by the company’s slogan “Broadcast yourself”.
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"Me" on video

Jawed Karim showed the way by posting the first video on the platform: "Me at the zoo." He was seen commenting in front of the enclosure of an elephant: "What is cool about this animal is that it has a very, very, very long trunk.” Thousands of similar videos followed and, gradually, excerpts from copyrighted television shows. YouTube’s popularity was growing and, with it, the risks of lawsuits from television groups and ensuing financial catastrophe. While Google Video had trouble taking off and saw its video-on-demand service Google Store undermined by competition from Apple's iTunes Store, Google found a good match in YouTube, which it acquired in 2006. Google thereby gained access to content that could accelerate its audience growth and increase its advertising space prices. As for YouTube, the transaction provided the company with a shield to protect it from the sword of Damocles hanging above its head (even though the site was later targeted by legal attacks) and its website could continue to grow while staying true to its original spirit, i.e. through entertaining videos produced by regular people: vocal, sports and dance performances of all kinds; movie parodies; webcam-filmed testimonies; burlesque babies, cat and dog series, either staged or captured on the spot; and confusing or mad experiences, including a famous one according to which cell phone waves could pop corn kernels. That video, watched thousands of times, is indicative of the power of this shareable medium – no matter that the clip was a fake.
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The World Tunes In on the Buzz

A buzz can arise as much from a concert of cola fountains powered by the chemical reaction between Mentos candy and soft drink as from montages like the one compiling Matt Harding’s dances around the world. These videos, whose lives seems limitless, since they keep being viewed, are produced at a lower cost, thanks to the increasing affordability of professional equipment, and the new, lighter, and more mobile cameras found in an increasing number of mobile phones. However, there are also skits and songs that helped launch the careers of comedians and singers like Kamini in France, with his hit “Marly Gomont.” The social networking aspect comes into play in the form of recommendations, with opportunities to comment on a video, to recommend it or not, to save it in your favorites, and especially, to share with friends — the engine of the buzz. So there are “positive” buzzes. Other buzzes can be devastating when a filmed individual becomes the target of Internet users, like the young female rapper dubbed “rappeuse du 38” and her song “3333 Francs CFA”, mocked through countless comments and blogs that linked to the clip. Thanks to their accidental or triggered popularity, these “stars of the web” can suddenly measure the power of this open, global, 24/7 social network. Communication and marketing professionals have also come to understand how videos can reach the masses: they post “viral videos” on the platform, i.e. videos whose tone or plot ending reveal a brand or service, which can attract much attention. Since the Internet can reach any consumer or voter on the planet, at home, it has become an essential tool.
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Obama 2.0

Aware of this power, Barack Obama based his electoral campaign on social networking sites, YouTube included, to build a special unmediated relationship with U.S. citizens. Door-to-door campaigning, one of the historic electoral approaches and still widely in use in the U.S., has found its modern incarnation. Videos showed excerpts from speeches, testimonials in favour of Obama, behind-the-scenes footage of the campaign, etc. “They [created] a sort of experience that made you feel like you were there and that the campaign was personal,” said YouTube Information & Politics Manager Steve Grove to Kessica Ramirez of Newsweek. Ramirez’s article also noted that more voters watched the campaign videos on YouTube than on the official candidate sites, with a total of over 14 million hours of viewing on Barack Obama’s account, versus 488,000 hours for his rival John McCain. YouTube allows unlimited and free access, unlike television where campaign clips are part of a media space filtered by the journalists and subjected to paid advertising. With YouTube, Barack Obama has reinvented political and institutional communications. Others before him had used the Internet, but the Illinois senator has optimized the tool to create a true "process" from which other political campaigners are now trying to draw. Since then, there is no turning back. The President continues to speak to Americans on YouTube. The first speech he gave after his election was broadcasted on traditional media and on Google’s platform. Barack Obama also makes his weekly address available on YouTube, and even produced a tutorial to explain how the new site works. In February 2010, he gave an exclusive interview to the platform where he answered questions from users.

His collaborators also have to comply with the new codes of democracy 2.0 in a recurring item entitled "Open For Questions" where Internet users are invited to ask questions about a specific topic such as economics, security, health, climate change, etc.
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Essential Partnerships

The White House is not the only institution to have invested the platform. UNESCO, the Red Cross, and football clubs such as Real Madrid now have their own YouTube channel to communicate as they please. The media also have a strong presence, from CNN to Tele Sur, Russia Today, TV5 Monde, France 24, and AlJazeera, where they all feature stories, excerpts from television programs, documentaries, and more. If major international TV networks are present on YouTube, it is because they find it to be an effective relay to their satellite broadcasting. AFP, which intends to use video to support its digital revolution and address the general public more directly, also has accounts in several languages. Local media are not left out, nor are radio stations, which by definition are not image producers. In that regard, Europe 1 stands out, as it converts its audio news pieces into videos by simply adding a static photograph to the soundtrack. This is an excellent way to reach a different audience and share its news contents. As media and organizations are moving closer together, there are opportunities to produce value-added content. This content is precious to YouTube as it generates traffic and advertising revenue. Entertainment videos, music videos, TV series, and sports videos are among the most-viewed items on YouTube. The company has thus partnered with Lagardère Active and its television networks, but also with Arte, which will be offering its “Arte + 7” catch-up system on the platform starting in November. Complete shows will be available, thus emphasizing YouTube’s catch-up TV role. Agreements have also been designed with Channel 4, Universal, Sony Music, CBS, and Disney and its Disney Channel and ESPN brands. Through these partnerships, YouTube is trying to remain competitive with rivals such as Dailymotion or Hulu, which follow the same professional content acquisition logic, while its partners are looking for extra exposure and a way to benefit from new revenue streams from advertising and on programs whose costs have generally already been absorbed. And their partnership with YouTube may also help them prevent their traffic from being diverted, and prevent their videos’ copyrights from being violated, thanks to the offer of a free technology called ContentID, used to identify accounts uploading protected videos. Furthermore, it should be noted that a decision by the Spanish justice system on 23 September 2010 could create a precedent, as it ruled that YouTube could not be considered a content provider and that the platform is not required to control protected content before it is posted.
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The Transition Toward Television

The platform is trying to establish new consuming habits by offering free complete movies on its Movies page. This page currently features documentaries like Yann Arthus Bertrand’s Home, thrillers, Bollywood productions, etc. There is only one step left from video rentals to pay-per-view VOD (video on demand) with YouTube Rentals, currently developing on the website. Increasingly serious information also indicates that YouTube may be negotiating with US studios to offer a growing number of movies and high-audience capacity blockbusters. And then comes Google TV, television connected to the Internet, which should launch in the US within a few weeks. This service will round up the YouTube system. The contents of the platform are already viewable on the living room TV set with the use of AppleTV, some television sets, and video game consoles such as Wii and PlayStation 3 via their Internet connection. But Google TV will go further because it will bring currently separate services together into a single self-sufficient service that will have access to the contents, their indexation, live traditional TV reception, program recording, and on-demand access to videos. Google TV thus arises as a rival to AppleTV, which already allows users to watch streaming movies. Apple also relies on iTunes, which offers access to TV series. YouTube’s forays into 3D, new formats like WebM, supposed to reduce loading time, and 4K (already operational) offering a 4096x2304 resolution close to the 1:85 cinema ratio in very high definition show how YouTube plans to remain at the cutting edge. Allowing users to upload videos in HD and Full HD also ensures that these videos will display perfectly on a television screen without any "pixelation" effect. Here, YouTube and Google TV are poising themselves to become influential players in video production and distribution.

Translated by François COUTURE.
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Key data

Source : Google
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  • Randall STROSS, Planète Google, Faut-il avoir peur du géant du web, éd Pearson, 2009, Paris, 323 p.
  • Collectif, La télévision du téléphonoscope à YouTube, éd. Antipodes, coll. Médias et Histoire, 2009, Lausanne, 383 p.
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