The WSJ reported last night that YouTube is now talking to Hollywood studios and production companies about licensing TV shows and movies to include in its recently launched $10/month YouTube Red subscription service. The WSJ said the talks are still preliminary and YouTube’s specific plans are not well understood. While it’s too early to judge, I’m skeptical that this will be a game-changer for YouTube Red for many reasons.
First and most important, the world does not need another place to watch TV shows online. We already have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, TV networks’ full episode players/apps, TV Everywhere services, HBO Now, iTunes, Google Play, etc, the list goes on and on. Though it’s by no means straightforward for viewers to actually FIND the shows online they’re looking for, the shows are almost certainly somewhere online already. For YouTube Red to become yet another online home for TV shows creates little new value and only more confusion.
The past 5 years have witnessed an incredible migration of TV shows online, led by aggressive licensing by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. As these services have amassed data on their subscribers’ viewing preferences, they have become increasingly savvy and selective about what shows to license. Further, taking a page from HBO’s playbook, they’ve also reduced their emphasis on licensing, instead investing heavily in original content that is highly differentiated.
All of this means that YouTube, as a latecomer to TV licensing, will be left to choose from shows with less intrinsic appeal and brand awareness. With the top shelf content already pretty well picked over by the incumbent SVOD players, YouTube will be shopping primarily among the leftovers. Regardless, Hollywood will be thrilled to have yet another buyer in the market - especially one backed by Google’s deep pockets. Depending on how eager YouTube is, the odds only increase that YouTube will pay a lot, but actually get very little.
Meanwhile, it’s worth asking the question whether offering TV shows is even consistent with YouTube’s brand position? YouTube was initially an amateur’s paradise (the “cats on a skateboard” phase). More recently some of these amateurs turned out to be very talented and built huge fan followings (the “YouTube Stars” phase). As more people turned to YouTube, established media and brands realized they too needed to be involved.
Through it all YouTube has remained a serendipitous, spontaneous experience - raise your hand if you’ve ever lost yourself for 20 minutes hopscotching around YouTube, wherever the next link took you. It’s always great fun.
But going to YouTube to watch full-length traditional TV shows? That’s not something most people think of YouTube as being about. Sometimes brands can convert their perceptions, sometimes they can’t and just end up spinning their wheels, wasting their money. Too often brands vastly overestimate their ability to become something they’re not.
In reality, YouTube already has a fantastic brand in online video - THE place for finding just about any short video and then watching it with minimum commercial interruptions. With YouTube Red’s subscription model, the company is trying to be something it isn’t, and as I wrote a few weeks ago, it seems to be grasping to find a solid hook to function as its key value proposition (e.g. music? original YouTube content?, downloads?, etc.). Now it looks like it believes maybe TV shows are the key.
These days everyone in the media business, including YouTube, feels compelled to offer an SVOD service. But in YouTube’s case, sticking to its ad-supported, organic content roots, is a much more likely path to sustained success than chasing incumbent SVOD players into the TV licensing game.