YouTube TV has arrived, and with it the potential to change how television works. Google-owned YouTube’s first foray into true cable-like television takes to the internet equivalent of the airwaves in select cities today: 40-plus channels of entertainment, news and sports for $35 per month, the so-called skinny bundle. So far, the service is still a little wonky. But the possibilities are there to inspire a whole new generation of viewers to actually pay for TV, and advertisers seem eager to give it a shot.
In particular, YouTube believes it can persuade a whole new audience that otherwise never considered paying for TV at all. “There are a lot of ‘cord-nevers’—millennials who never sign on for cable,” says Kelly Merryman, YouTube’s vice-president of content partnerships. “They love TV programming. They just don’t love the distribution.” That means TV, on any device, on demand. (Cable companies may offer similar-seeming options, but so far cable still remains tied to the cable box.)
YouTube brings built-in cachet as it jumps into the fray—not just in name recognition but as a platform and service used by more than one billion people. Reaching even a fraction of that audience could be a boon to marketers. But YouTube TV still has some kinks it needs to work out before it qualifies as a full-blown TV substitute.
The Biggest Name
YouTube is hardly alone in trying to win at live internet TV. Dish’s Sling TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, and AT&T’s new DirectTV Now are already vying for viewers, and Hulu is expected to come out with its own version of a service later this year.
But none of these have really taken off. Analysts estimate that Sling TV, the most popular of the services, has about a million subscribers, meaning YouTube has plenty of room to win market share. And it enjoys a distinct advantage. “There’s already this install base of users who have YouTube on every device and app, and every TV,” says Paul Verna, a senior analyst for research firm eMarketer.
The name YouTube alone carries weight as a signifier of people’s viewing habits migrating online. And for networks taking part in YouTube TV’s launch, that could make coming aboard the service seem like a smarter move than saying no. “YouTube brings the brand in online video (to live internet TV),” says Glenn Hower, a senior digital media analyst with research firm Parks Associates. If any platform is likely to cannibalize (more) viewers, it’s YouTube. To not participate as more and more viewers look to the internet for video could mean dealing yourself into irrelevance.
At least, if and when YouTube TV fulfills its seeming potential. The service so far is fun, because television is fun. When you take a closer look, you see some glaring gaps in content compared to regular TV. The experience is not smooth or intuitive in the vein of Netflix, with its single, comprehensive catalog of shows and movies.
I gave the service a spin on a YouTube-supplied Pixel smartphone, and overall I thought it was enjoyable, though mildly frustrating. I added some of my favorite shows to YouTube TV’s (unlimited) cloud DVR, and I noticed that tapping into these individually gave me different results. I could watch every episode to date from the current seasons of Saturday Night Live and Empire, for instance. But I could only watch five not-all-consecutive episodes of Shark Tank, presumably due to licensing issues.
Those same issues also plague YouTube TV’s sports offerings. You can’t watch the NFL on your phone, for instance, because Verizon owns those rights exclusively. But you can stream games on the web or via Chromecast on your TV. Depending on how YouTube worked out its individual deals with local affiliates among the initial markets where it’s available, you may or may not be able to watch your home team.
Which brings up another issue: fragmentation. You can get YouTube TV today in New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Philadelphia with other cities “coming soon,” according to YouTube. But for now, it’s impossible to generalize about how many channels you’ll get for your $35 each month, because local availability varies per market. On top of that, YouTube TV has the networks ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and ESPN, among others, on board. But some are still missing. For me, personally, no CNN or HGTV are big minuses.
In short, watching YouTube TV does not yet work as complete cable substitute. For people who like to dip into TV passively to find something to watch, the service does not disappoint, from movies to recent TV to original YouTube Red content (which is actually really funny!—especially CollegeHumor’s “Bad Internet”). You’ll probably find something to like on YouTube TV. What’s less clear is whether you’ll like it enough to pay $35 per month on top of all your other monthly subscriptions.
A New TV Business
That said, YouTube TV is way cheaper than your typical $100 cable bill. YouTube has never revealed subscriber numbers for its $10-per-month YouTube Red service, the ad-free version of the platform launched nearly two years ago. That’s likely because it never gained traction. “It’s hard to get people to pay for stuff they’d already been able to get for free,” Verna says. YouTube TV, on the other hand, comes with sports, news, and entertainment they would otherwise have to pay a cable company to access.
YouTube has not talked publicly about how it can afford to offer such an attractive price, nor how revenue sharing works between networks and content providers. But it’s easy to imagine how a sprawling, hugely profitable company like Google could afford to subsidize the service to get it off the ground as it hatches a longer-term money-making strategy.
YouTube TV has the potential to do both micro-targeting and macro-targeting.
In the beginning, ads on YouTube TV will be the same as the ones shown on regular TV. But over time, the company says it will look towards innovating on the ad model. It’s plausible Google could take all the personal data it has already gathered on its users across search, Gmail, Maps, and Android, and use it to micro-target ads to suit a particular YouTube TV viewer. “The application of data to traditional broadcast would make a much more sophisticated advertising product,” says Tom Denford, chief strategy officer for the marketing consulting firm ID Comms.
But perhaps even more intriguing, YouTube is now acting more like a broadcaster, as opposed to a platform where it can target an audience narrowly. “One of the barriers to building brands through precision marketing is you don’t have shared media moments,” says Denford. “You have peer media moments.”
YouTube TV, however, has the potential to create those very mass-media moments—think the Super Bowl or the Oscars—that brands and advertisers love. The key is that YouTube TV, unlike regular YouTube or any other video streaming service, offers TV in real time, the way cable does. No big internet company has yet been able to crack this barrier, though not for lack of trying. But compared to all the rest, YouTube has the advantage of being primarily a place people come to watch.
In other words, YouTube TV has the potential to do both micro-targeting and macro-targeting. Being able to do both could create the kind of virtuous cycle that feeds back into YouTube’s own success. YouTube TV may be wonky now, but that’s not the point. YouTube is playing a longer game, one that’s only just getting started.
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