Thomas Sutcliffe: Television will survive YouTube

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So far YouTube doesn't seem to have been verbed yet - that transitional moment at which a brand name metastasises to take possession of an action, as has already occurred with Google. It really can't be far away though, given that YouTube is one of the most popular websites on the internet and is growing at an astonishing rate. It reportedly increased its users 500 per cent in the first half of this year - and the news that it has just signed a deal with Warner Music to make pop videos available free aren't exactly likely to to slow its growth. And if you're one of the dwindling number of people not aware of it, then I should explain that the verb "youtube" would mean something like the following: to upload short video clips to a website so that anyone with an internet connection can view them. If you're one of the one in eight internet users who already visit the YouTube site you will probably know that the verb has a secondary meaning: to sit in a state of powerless stupefaction in front of a cornucopia of the nugatory and the negligible.

YouTube is to television viewing what Pringles are to the balanced diet - a succession of worryingly compulsive, bite-sized clips which you consume in a state of permanently deferred self-control. Just one more, you think, as one fragment of temporary distraction fades to black and you find yourself clicking hopefully on the next - and then you find that an hour has passed and you're left only with a sense of squandered pride. It isn't that everything on YouTube is terrible, either - who could fail to respond to Odi, the talking pug, a Californian pet who wheezes out the words "I love you" (or rather "uhwuuvooohh") at his owner's command? Or not enjoy the "best bit" highlights from comedy shows which fans, or the broadcasters themselves, post on the site?

But most of it is junk because the chief problem with YouTube is also its unique selling point - there are no editors. Anyone can post pretty much anything (barring the usual legal prohibitions) and they do. Relatively high on the Most Viewed selection at the time of writing, for instance, is "9/11 The Truth: What Happened to WTC Building 7" - an awesomely dimwitted conspiracy theory which claims that the World Trade Centre was brought down by controlled explosions. Not far behind is "Making Of: The Greatest Swordsman That Ever Lived", a sophomoric pastiche of a fantasy movie, distinguished only by its terrible acting and clunky jokes. A staggering 129,000 people had viewed "Drags 1995", all obliged to sit through two minutes and 56 seconds of murky footage of an American football match to establish beyond doubt that it was of interest to nobody but the person who originally filmed it.

I reckon that at some 6,300 man hours down the YouTube - a mere fraction of the awesome quantity of potentially creative energy consumed by the site. Since a vast proportion of what you can find there is a technologically advanced equivalent of teenagers pulling faces at themselves in the mirror - you might wonder at the ripples of consternation running through broadcasting circles at the siren lure of YouTube.

You might wonder too about what its users are prepared to do to stand out from the crowd. You hardly need the internet to persuade adolescents to set fire to their farts (a popular subsection of an apparently limitless selection of clips devoted to intestinal gas) but surely only video blogs could have given us the young man who attached candles to his nipples in order to persuade the YouTube community to vote with their mice and turn him into a temporary celebrity. Along with the amateur stunts and the funny pets and jaw-droppingly dull monologues it confirms that the success of YouTube doesn't depend on a new kind of content so much as a new kind of audience - open-mouthed and with time to burn. As maddeningly elusive as this younger audience is for old-fashioned broadcasters and as tantalising as YouTube's demographics currently are it would be a mistake to think that they're being attracted by something that television is failing to give them. The vast proportion of what you see on YouTube is rubbish and recognised as such by its users. More pertinently the vast proportion of what's not rubbish is produced by existing media professionals, working in music video, advertising, television and film.

A canny broadcaster might save everyone a lot of trouble by compiling YouTube highlights (as Jay Leno has already started to do in the States) but they shouldn't panic at the thought of a vast paradigm shift in what the audience want to watch and find captivating. Quality still counts. If YouTube kills television it will be because television deserved to die.