Ian Burrell: YouTube's global reach is making it a powerful rival to TV

Media Studies: Smart TV sets mean YouTube is no longer confined to computers and mobile devices

You all know Thomas "TomSka" Ridgewell right? You don't? Well, he's arguably the most popular British comedy star on the internet. His channel on YouTube, which he set up as a student, has a staggering 1.8 million subscribers and has registered 377 million views. To give you a comparison, Ricky Gervais, the mainstream British comedian who has done most to engage with the YouTube audience, has 128,000 subscribers and 15 million views.

Gervais knows this is the place to find a young audience, which is why he is today launching Learn Guitar with David Brent on the Ricky Gervais Channel. The trailer features Brent strumming on an acoustic as he sings about life as a travelling sales rep.

But he still has some way to go to catch TomSka, who even has a range of merchandise featuring his distinctive animation characters and his two-tone tie. Then there's another British YouTube comedy channel phenomenon The Midnight Beast (365,000 subscribers, 61 million views) who, among other sketches, have made a video of Harry Potter as a grime rapper.

Gervais is not alone among television power players in recognising the potential scale and global reach of a medium that threatens to eclipse traditional broadcasters. While other Noughties internet platforms have waned (remember MySpace?), YouTube, which celebrates its eighth birthday today, has continued to evolve since being bought by Google in 2006.

Simon Cowell and his Syco Entertainment business will be leading contributors to YouTube's Comedy Week, which also starts today. Cowell's The You Generation channel will be auditioning comedians who send in film clips from around the world. This is not a one-off gesture of goodwill to Google by the media entertainment mogul – he loves YouTube. The You Generation (aka TYG) launched in March and has already had auditioning contests in the categories of presenter, cook, girl band and stylist.

The channel has found 364,000 subscribers in less than two months since it launched. The You Generation is available in 26 countries and enables Cowell to do things which are just not possible on the more resource intensive and inflexible television platform. It has also been an eye-opening adventure into harnessing the powers of global YouTube stars. Harley Morenstein, the Canadian host of YouTube cooking show Epic Meal Time, worked on The You Generation's search for a chef, while Kandee Johnson, YouTube's star of fashion, was brought in by Cowell to judge the auditions for a stylist.

"This is something completely different for us," Ben Todd, Syco's UK head of media, tells me. "It's a really exciting experiment." It's equally exciting for audition winners like Blake Francis, until this month a 19-year-old student on the Australian Gold Coast, who won Syco's search for a presenter. Having made it to the final three thanks to a video audition where he threw himself backwards off a bridge into a river, Francis was flown to London and is now being deployed as the channel's own presenter.

Some might complain that they still prefer their video shows on a larger screen or that YouTube is a free experience which offers limited opportunities of financial returns for all but the most popular creative performers. But changes are afoot. Smart television sets mean YouTube is no longer confined to computers and mobile devices. And the first experiments are being made in paid subscription YouTube channels, which could transform the business model.

The only British paid subscription channel among the initial 30 that launched this month is a genuinely thrilling experiment to bring live British theatre to an international audience by filming it in high definition.

Digital Theatre launched as a website business three years ago and has developed an idea – also pursued by cinema companies – to broaden access to West End shows, plays and opera. Its current offering includes a selection of Shakespeare, performed at the Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Productions are filmed with up to 12 cameras but in a way that is intended to replicate the experience of the theatre audience. A high definition download is £10.99 or you can rent the file for 48 hours for £3.99.

In February, the company's founders Robert Delamere and Tom Shaw flew to Los Angeles and made a pitch to become one of the first paid subscriptions on YouTube. "That was quite an important moment for us," says Delamere. "We had to make a big presentation to the great and good of Silicon Valley and had two minutes in front of Jeff Katzenberg (film producer and head of DreamWorks Animation) and Will.i.am (pop and television star)."

The pitch was successful and led to the Digital Theatre YouTube channel, which costs £3.99 a month and offers a choice of 10 productions, including Abi Morgan's Lovesong and the RSC's As You Like It.

Google is sometimes criticised – especially by publishers – for exploiting the content of others and not doing enough to help the creative process. But eight years in, YouTube offers a vast treasure of good stuff, from cutting edge comedy to the high arts.

At 92, Burson still gets the PR world buzzing

The public relations world is buzzing over the imminent arrival from America of a 92-year-old who was once described as "the century's most influential PR figure".

I had no idea until recently that Harold Burson, co-founder of the mighty global agency Burson-Marsteller, was of English parentage (although he grew up in Memphis). He is still likes to fly to Asia to observe changing trends. His New York office meeting room is furnished with four rocking chairs. Nice touch.

Burson set up Burson-Marsteller with the adland executive Bill Marsteller in 1952, when they pioneered the supposedly modern idea of integration with a concept they called "total communications". They also thought global – setting up in Geneva in 1961 and expanding to take on Hill & Knowlton, which was then the only international PR firm.

The pair sold out to Young & Rubicam in 1979 and B-M is now a cash cow for Sir Martin Sorrell's giant WPP advertising and communications network.

Burson is supposedly without enemies, which is saying something for a man whose company did crisis management for some highly controversial clients, from cigarette companies to Union Carbide, the chemical firm that caused the Bhopal disaster. He will talk tonight in London on "The Changing Face of Corporations".

The battle of the bureau to claw back some credibility

Once again Newsnight has apologised for a bungled report, this time for an item which misrepresented the veterans' charity Help for Heroes.

It's not so much the BBC2 flagship that I fear for. Last week's appointment of new editor Ian Katz is also a guarantee of its future – the deputy editor of The Guardian will start in September and will surely be given time by the BBC Director-General Tony Hall to not only restore the programme's reputation but give it a fresh identity.

More precarious is the position of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). Already badly damaged by its association with Newsnight's flawed story on Lord McAlpine, it could hardly afford the PR disaster that comes with its unfortunate partnership with the BBC on the Help for Heroes story.

The BIJ, set up three years ago with money from the Potter Foundation, was a brave new model for serious investigations and offered exciting potential to hungry young journalists. Until now it has depended on alliances with established news media, which will now be wary of working with it. I hope it wins its lonely battle to win back its integrity.

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