The YouTube website (www.youtube.com ) doesn’t look like much, just an overly-busy, generic homepage with a few featured videos and a search option. Yet behind that humble frontage lies a video treasure trove, available for free at the simple click of a mouse. The breadth of work featured is phenomenal, ranging from home movies, to pop videos, to television shows. At 50 million video downloads per day, YouTube is prompting talk of a paradigm shift for the broadcasting industry, not to mention its impact on record labels and advertising agencies.
“It’s the ultimate viral exchange and mart,” says music video commissioner John Hassay. “YouTube’s a great companion piece to MySpace as far as getting images out there.” Like the ubiquitous online community website, now owned by Rupert Murdoch, or the photo-sharing website Flickr (CR June), YouTube already feels like it has been with us forever. In fact, it was founded in a Californian garage just 18 months ago. Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, who met at payment service website PayPal, came up with the idea after realising the difficulties of sharing video footage via the web or by email. YouTube was born, and is currently serving over six million unique users daily.
Putting videos online is nothing new, but YouTube is widely believed to be the first to have got it right. It quickly surpassed competitors such as GoogleVideo or Yahoo’s video search site for ease of use, both in watching and uploading videos. “I remember looking at the first web video in 1997 and thinking ‘this is going to revolutionise viewing’ but nothing really happened,” says Tom Loosemore, project director for BBC 2.0, the corporation’s drive toward developing its next-generation online services. “YouTube is a tipping point, they’ve got the simple, basic things right.” These include the ability to upload videos from virtually any source, including mobile phones, along with space to comment on and rate the videos and even record video responses to them. The videos don’t even have to be limited to a YouTube url either, as the site offers a feature allowing users to embed a YouTube video onto MySpace or other websites and blogs. In contrast, if you fancy a bit more privacy, it’s also possible to restrict who you share your clips with, making it a perfect way of sharing work-in-progress or a showreel with a limited selection of people.
Both regular users and the media industry are rapidly cottoning on to its value. It seems that every day a new YouTube star is born: from the US receptionist who signed a programming development deal with NBC host Carson Daly’s production company after her home video parodies were spotted by his people, to the grumpy Bus Uncle who became a minor celebrity in Hong Kong after a mobile phone film of him berating a fellow passenger was put up on the site. Adland has dipped a toe in too: the Real Simpsons trailer, directed by Chris Palmer of Gorgeous Enterprises (CR April), was released first on the website, before appearing on TV. Mainly though, agencies and production companies are wary about putting their work up there. Even though there are currently over 30,000 commercials on the site, most were not put up by the agencies themselves. “We use it in an unofficial way,” says Neil Christie, managing director at Wieden + Kennedy London. “We wouldn’t create a new campaign and stick it on YouTube because I think that looks like you’re using it for commercial purposes which is not what it’s supposed to be. If people start doing that, it’s going to be full of ads with commercial messages, rather than people playing with it.”
“Other people do it for us,” agrees Hassay. “It’s a bit naff to put your own stuff up there, and you always get a lot of criticism when you get found out.” One of the pleasures of YouTube is its seeming lack of any corporate influence, with the success or failure of a clip decided by its users. It does, however, seem a more natural environment for virals: The Viral Factory, for example, freely admit to putting their work on the site, yet managing director Matt Smith acknowledges that there’s no way of controlling whether it will be seen. “On YouTube the good stuff rises, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to manipulate it,” he says. “We’ve uploaded the last four or five clips we’ve made as a matter of course. You don’t know what to do next, you just upload it and hope for the best.”
Alongside its usefulness as a barometer of popular culture, the vast amount of content on the site makes YouTube an invaluable creative research tool, allowing access to everything from obscure 80s videos to clips of major world news events and bizarre phenomena such as the current spate of videos documenting the explosive effects of adding Mentos sweets to a bottle of Diet Coke. This inspiration is already filtering through the system, with the latest Fatboy Slim video, for That Old Pair of Jeans, being a case in point. After director Jon Watts spotted Chris Bliss’ juggling skills on YouTube, John Hassay commissioned him to perform in the promo. The finished product was then placed on Fatboy Slim’s MySpace page to view, and a competition set up, inviting watchers to create their own versions. A deluge of responses followed, many of which are posted up on YouTube, bringing the story full circle. The competition winner will also be announced via MySpace.
Many YouTube users need no such encouragement to create homages to their favourite clips. To honour England’s attempts in the World Cup, one user remixed Wieden + Kennedy’s Impossible Dream Honda spot into The Nation’s Dream, replacing the central character with a series of cut-outs of England’s finest footballers. The agency in turn then latched onto the possible significance of the ad’s soundtrack and created its own special World Cup version – a more subtle and professional mix with a specially made voiceover by Garrison Keillor. While different in tone, both the remixed ads end with a hot-air balloon emblazoned with the St George’s Cross, making it hard to clarify who has inspired whom.
While most agencies welcome such playfulness as free promotion for their ads and clients, copyright is a big issue on YouTube. The site contains stern warnings regarding infringing on copyright and pledges to remove any clips that break the laws. YouTube has also introduced a ten-minute time limit on videos in an attempt to discourage people posting entire television shows (although you can apply for a special Director licence to post longer content for free as long as you can prove you are its author). Despite these precautions, it is extremely easy to find copyright breaking content on the site and it seems an impossibly unwieldy beast to contain. “All over the internet there are people taking control of the media,” acknowledges Tom Loosemore. “[The BBC] is publicly funded and we’ve only got so much money. Some of the things we have to fight but is it right that we should throw all [that] money at lawyers?” Even the notoriously litigious record companies seem to be holding off so far. “People don’t seem to be threatened by it yet as MySpace is doing more good than harm at the moment,” comments Cara Brady, creative manager at Atlantic Records.
Perhaps it instead makes more sense to try to work alongside websites such as YouTube or Flickr, which the BBC is tentatively beginning to do, recently setting up a page on Flickr encouraging people to upload their photos of the Radio 1 Big Weekend. By uploading, users automatically allow their images to be used by the BBC, who picked the cream of the crop for the Radio 1 website. “It’s a much more powerful way of using the web,” says Loosemore. “Rather than treating our website like an island.” Radio 1 has also dabbled with making content for YouTube, specifically the Big Gay Disco Man film of DJ Colin Murray dancing to the Infernal track, Paris to Berlin. Shot spontaneously in the Radio 1 office, we are assured, the film has garnered over a million viewings as well its own spin-off films. “He was dancing around in the office so they decided to film it, it was off the cuff,” claims Loosemore. “As much as anything it gives him something to talk about with the audience – they know where their audience is hanging out, and it’s on YouTube.”
It is perhaps too early to predict the full impact of the website, although it is expected that broadcasters will begin to make shorter, “taster” versions of TV shows, released online (the BBC is already looking to implement a “watch again” service, giving viewers the chance to catch shows they missed via the internet), while the opportunity for amateur filmmakers and animators to reach a global audience will undoubtedly see the site becoming an important showcase for new talent. “I think it might change the way filmmakers think about filmmaking, as when you start it’s very much about pleasing your peers, but with something like YouTube you’ve suddenly got access to the whole of the Western world and beyond,” says Matt Smith. “So if you make something popular, and show that to agents and so on, that’s much more impressive.” Record companies are also likely to begin commissioning more than one video for a track, to use across different media. “People want different outlets, they want MTV but also something else,” says Cara Brady. “It will offer another interesting creative look at the track.”
YouTube, which somewhat miraculously still remains an independent company, propped up by investment from venture capitalists Sequoia Capital, isn’t perfect yet, with complaints such as the quality of the films and the ugliness of the site regularly cited. But these seem minor quibbles compared to the opportunities it offers for both the media industry and everyday users. “Have they got the basics right? God yes,” says Loosemore. “When we look back at the history of media, we’ll see that YouTube were the first people to tip [videos online] from being esoteric to being mainstream.”