PALO ALTO, Calif. —
I shower you with all these stats not to depress you. Instead, the numbers underscore the huge opportunity that's driving Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and dozens of startups looking to transform how we watch TV: by giving us more choice over what we see, by adding new interfaces (like voice control), and by unhooking us from a monthly cable bill. But the same stats also illustrate the difficulty of their quest. If nothing has threatened traditional live television so far, what new tech could possibly get us to switch from the tube?
Well, how about YouTube? Over the last couple years, the Google-owned video-streaming site has attempted to transform itself from a vast repository of clips into something more refined and worthy of our sustained attention: the perfectly personalized television network. If the gambit succeeds, one day not long from now you'll think of YouTube as a cable network built just for you, a place you escape to for entertainment, news, learning and voyeurism, no matter what device you're using or where you are.
YouTube has certain natural advantages in its battle to win the TV wars, the most conspicuous of which are scope and scale. The company aims to deliver its videos to every device, from PCs to TVs to phones, in any corner of the world. In May, it announced that people now watch about 6 billion hours of YouTube videos per month, a 50 percent increase over last year. That's more than any other video site on the planet — Netflix, for instance, serves about 1 billion hours a month. But it's far less time than we spend with traditional TV. We watch as much YouTube in a month as we watch TV in a day.
YouTube's efforts to turn itself into the next generation of television have been chronicled before — Fast Company, The New Yorker and Time have documented the firm's $100 million push to create hundreds of new channels by indie producers. (The fund also went to produce video at established sites, including, for a time, some of the offerings on Slate's YouTube channel.) At the same time, YouTube is working on deals to stream the high-budget shows that you get on TV. But two problems have hampered the site's effort to mimic television. The first is speed. Can YouTube ever load its videos as quickly as you can switch channels on TV, and stream them at the same quality you expect on the tube? The second issue is "discovery." Finding what you want to watch on television isn't easy, but it's a problem of manageable scope. On YouTube, the choices aren't infinite, but they might as well be. A given YouTube video tends to be shorter than most TV programming, it appeals to a far more limited and precisely tailored audience, and it's drowned in a sea of millions of other clips. How will you ever find enough stuff on YouTube, then, to make your experience comparable to what you get from the flat-screen on your wall?