There’s something a little odd about the idea of reviewing Web content. For one thing, there’s just so darn much of it that reviews almost become pointless, especially since you could just as easily watch, dislike, and move on in the time it takes to read a review.
But the new YouTube channels aren’t like the rest of the Web. At least, they’re not supposed to be. So it makes some sense for TV critic Mike Hale to take a qualitative look at some of the offerings available on the 60-plus channels that have already launched. The entire article is worth a read, but one interesting highlight is Hale’s overall reaction to YouTube’s first foray into the world of content.
All of these shows could, with minor modifications, look at home on television, and the production values on many of the new channels are comparable to those on the lower and middle regions of cable. But the creators are conscious of the television conventions they are playing with, and their shows have a tinge of renegade spirit — a Webbiness — missing on most of the new channels.
On the other hand, entire categories of these new YouTube channels — on pop culture and gossip, music, sports, women’s topics — mostly feel like imitations of what cable outlets like MTV, Spike and Bravo already do: play music videos, assemble talking heads, riff on the news, sell merchandise. There’s a strong infomercial vibe to channels like BeFit, which is produced by Lionsgate and features things like the exercise routines of the stars of “The Hunger Games,” a Lionsgate film.
There is also a sameness to them, despite statements by Robert Kyncl, the YouTube executive in charge of global content, about the importance of tailoring offerings to ever-smaller niche audiences. As you click from Red Bull (sports) to Young Hollywood Network (pop culture) to Noisey (music) to American Hipster (just what it sounds like), what’s striking is how they start to blend into one another. They all seem pitched toward the same mythical viewer, presumably the one prized by Internet advertisers, whose mind appears to be occupied with a sticky mix of celebrity gossip, blockbuster movies, video games, zombies, action sports and news of the weird.
While I don’t disagree with Hale’s take, I’m a little leery of the television comparison. Granted, I’ve spent a lot space writing about how these Web originals will ultimately need to work their way onto the TV and into a lean back experience, but I don’t think that means imitating what’s already on the tube. The fact is there’s already tons of content on TV and a lot of it wouldn’t be sustainable if cable operators and media companies didn’t bundle large swaths of the dial into standard packages.
What I mean by Web becoming TV is that the Web will — and already does — change the style of content we see on television. And I don’t just mean ham-fisted Web references on your favorite shows. I’m talking about the art of storytelling.
- Setups are quicker on the Web.
- Passion for niche content is practically an imperative for success online.
- Stories are consumed out of sequence, yet storytellers find a way to make it work.
- Immersive worlds are preferable to tired premises.
- Web content has the freedom to tackle topics media companies shied away from (or just didn’t even know about).
The list goes on. But the point is that we’re very much at the start of something transformative. Yes, a lot of the YouTube channels are going to blend together, and many of them will look like basic cable knockoffs. And yes, the early efforts will be aimed at a “mythical viewer” rather than a real one because it’s impossible to know an audience before you have one. But the key question to ask long-term is how will today’s YouTube channels (as well as the original content elsewhere online) change storytelling?
The video at the top of this post is one of those shows we should be watching. Not because it’s a runaway hit (it’s views are modest so far), but because Craft and Burn is so different that you wouldn’t even pitch it to a cable channel. And yet, it works. On that point, Hale and I agree. And while Craft and Burn (which incidentally is rather clever piece of branded content from Meredith, publisher of Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal) may not amass the kind of audience we’d call a hit, its style speaks to the larger changes that are underway in terms of how we think about quality content.