The king of Internet video is embarking on a mission to become nothing less… (Illustration by Reuben…)
On a blustery spring day five years ago, Yakov Lapitzy pointed a video camera at his friend Jawed Karim standing in front of two elephants at the San Diego Zoo and hit the record button.
FOR THE RECORD:
YouTube videos: An article in Monday's Calendar section about YouTube's most influential videos misspelled Britney Spears' first name as Brittany. —
The resulting 19-second clip, titled "Me at the zoo," was not a cinematic masterpiece, with Karim remarking on the pachyderm's "really, really long trunks."
But as the first video uploaded to YouTube, it played a pivotal role in fundamentally altering how people consumed media and helped usher in a golden era of the 60-second video.
"Prior to YouTube, there was no way people would watch anything that was 30 or 60 seconds," said Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communication studies at Fordham University and author of the book "New New Media." "On TV, the shortest show was 30 minutes."
Five years after Karim's 19 seconds of digital immortality hit the Web and rocked the world of television, YouTube is coming full circle. The king of Internet video is embarking on a mission to become nothing less than the world's TV.
The average YouTube viewer sticks around for about 15 minutes a day, while TV ensnares people for five hours daily. So the San Bruno, Calif., company is experimenting with ways to keep people on its site longer.
To close the gap with television, YouTube is adding full-length movies, two-hour concerts and live sporting events — some in high-definition and even stereoscopic 3-D — to its mix of snack-sized videos. It's putting an emphasis on more polished videos from independent movie producers, major record labels and even Hollywood studios with whom YouTube has had a prickly relationship.
As much as YouTube went out of its way in the beginning to be the antithesis of television, in the end, it may become more like the boob tube.
"The day is coming when people won't think of online video as being separate from TV," said Shishir Mehrotra, who runs YouTube's advertising programs as director of product management. "The lines are blurring in both directions. From the viewer's perspective, there are many ways to watch content on their TV, and TV content on the Internet."
That was not the idea in 2005 when YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Karim stitched the company together in an office above a pizzeria in San Mateo, Calif. The goal was to create a site that would make it easy for average people to share their homemade videos.
By July 2006, the company announced that 65,000 videos a day were being uploaded to its site. It wasn't long before YouTube got noticed by a few big corporate fish. One was Google, which agreed in October 2006 to acquire YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock, even though there was nary a profit in sight.
YouTube also caught the eye of Viacom Inc. The media behemoth sued YouTube and its new corporate parent in March 2007 for $1 billion, alleging that YouTube had violated its copyrights when its users uploaded pirated videos of Viacom's TV shows, including episodes of "South Park." Google claimed that Viacom's own employees had uploaded many of those clips to market their shows to millions of YouTube users.
The case, which continues to wend its way through federal courts, in many ways encapsulates Hollywood's ambivalent relationship with Silicon Valley — even as both increasingly rely on the other to capture a generation of viewers who are as likely to reach for their computer mouse as they would their TV remote in search of something to watch.
"The relationship isn't completely repaired as long as the Viacom lawsuit is unresolved, but they've come a long way," said Will Richmond, an online video analyst with VideoNuze in Boston. "Hollywood recognizes the juggernaut that YouTube is."
Part of YouTube's power is that it has become the first place many Web surfers turn to find video, making it the second most popular search engine after its parent, Google. YouTube now streams 2 billion video views a day, more than the number of videos served up by three major broadcasters combined.
Whether YouTube has parlayed those eyeballs into profit is another matter. Google has declined to break out YouTube's financial performance from its overall earnings and has not said whether its subsidiary is profitable.
To improve its margins, YouTube is cultivating more professionally produced videos, which tend keep people around longer than homemade cat videos, Richmond said.
"YouTube has recognized that a large portion of user-generated content is not monetizable," Richmond said, "so they've made a huge effort to make more premium content available."