YouTube in a Race With Facebook, Netflix and Amazon Over the Future of TV

One of the biggest shifts currently underway in media is the race to re-invent television, and to thereby get access to the billions of dollars in advertising TV still captures. And Google has made it clear that YouTube intends to be a major factor in that race.

YouTube has made a number of changes aimed at beefing up the professional side of its video offerings, including the launch of a subscription service called YouTube Red. On Thursday, it unveiled another major step — one that will bring into even more direct conflict with Facebook and Amazon, both of which also have their sights set on dominating the future of TV.

The giant video platform announced at an event for advertisers in New York that it is launching a total of 40 new TV-style shows, many of which will feature not the usual homegrown talents that live on YouTube, but actual celebrities from traditional TV and Hollywood movies.

The initial slate of seven shows will include unscripted material from actors, talk-show hosts, musicians and comedians such as Ellen DeGeneres, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, Ludacris and Kevin Hart. Other shows will be fronted by YouTube stars including The Slow-Mo Guys, who specialize in filming things that are being blown up at super-slow-motion speeds.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki made a point of saying the new offerings — all of which will be supported by advertising, rather than a subscription paywall like YouTube Red — shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the service is turning its back on its user-generated past.

“YouTube is not TV and we never will be,” Wojcicki said. “The platform that you all helped create represents something bigger.” But it’s clear that YouTube has its sights set on being much more than just a platform for unknowns to make their mark with wisecracks or ad-hoc skits. It very much wants to be a conduit for more traditional fare as well.

The launch of this new stable of offerings means that YouTube is effectively taking three different routes towards getting more serious about TV, including Red — which carries content from YouTube stars such as PewDiePie and the Fine brothers — and YouTube TV, which launched earlier this year and offers a cable-style package of traditional channels such as ESPN, NBC and Fox.

Facebook has also made a number of moves towards getting more serious about TV, including steps that appear to be moving it away from the short-form, user-generated content that is popular on Facebook Live, and more toward longer-form, more traditional fare.

Last year, the giant social network hired Ricky Van Veen, one of the co-founders of the video site CollegeHumor, and assigned him to license or fund the creation of what sounds a lot like TV-style entertainment content, including comedy shows.

Some of this is going to bring both YouTube and Facebook into conflict with Netflix, which has been spending billions to license TV shows, movies and other content such as comedy shows and “reality TV.” According to some industry watchers, the price of this kind of entertainment has been climbing because Netflix has such deep pockets and is willing to pay.

And then there’s Amazon. The online-retailing giant has pockets that are at least as deep as those at Facebook and Netflix, and it has shown signs of wanting to aggressively move into the market.

Amazon has outbid Netflix and other players such as HBO for the rights to premier movie and TV offerings at leading industry events like the Sundance Film Festival, and it recently expanded Amazon Prime Video into more than 200 countries, which puts it head-to-head with Netflix. It has also reportedly been looking to launch a cable-style TV package.

One strength Amazon has is that it already operates an existing subscription service, Amazon Prime, that generates a significant amount of revenue for the company without video. Even if the TV shows and movies it licenses or produces don’t get huge ratings, if they help convince more people to sign up for a Prime subscription, then Amazon wins.

Facebook and Google, however, are theoretically more reliant on the advertising revenue that they will be able to generate from their video offerings, although they both obviously have giant businesses that spin off huge amounts of cash. It will be interesting to see who gains the upper hand as the world of digital TV continues to evolve.

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