In almost every interview I have done with digital video executives, the topic of conversation always shifts towards online content becoming the next evolution for entertainment. As YouTube launches more premium channels globally this week, countless articles are taking extra care to mention that many television stars are being offered their own channels as producers or actors. By all accounts, web television is predicted to surpass “traditional” media, rendering our satellite dishes and movie theaters obsolete.
It’s clear that digital entertainment has a promising future, yet with the constant chatter about this new wave of media, one thing is regularly neglected. As much as we would like to believe that digital video is the new gold standard for entertainment, it is anything but.
The lynchpin of YouTube and digital entertainment’s plan to conquer viewers exists within the fact that television stars are allegedly transitioning to digital video. One of the final hammer blows that drove this point home came when television actress Amy Poehler was announced as a partner in YouTube’s premium channel program. Poehler’s channel, “Smart Girls At The Party,” currently sports fewer than 40,000 subscribers with 1.5 million total views. While this channel has an incredible cast of actors appearing weekly, it is still a far cry in terms of success from Poehler’s NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” which averages about 3.5 million viewers each week.
I heard a radio interview with Poehler recently that was entirely “Parks and Recreation”-tinted. The questions pertained to the NBC sitcom, and the plugs at the bottom and top of the show were dedicated to show. It was only until the last minutes of the interview that Poehler mentioned her YouTube channel, which I personally had forgotten existed until she mentioned it. A cable television show comes with money, fame and prestige; 9 times out of 10, this is what will be promoted, and this is what will be viewed.
Promotion of these major network sitcoms has become a well-oiled machine that guarantees sitcoms will be talked about. Networks shell out millions in advertising while PR executives make sure that the stars of TV shows are out there doing interviews. Naturally, most news and media outlets are more than happy to interview those same stars simply because their names alone draw in huge audiences. It is a constant cycle of promotion that has little or no room for webshow plugs. These major television stars are never going to walk into an interview saying, “Hi, I am Amy Poehler from YouTube’s ‘Smart Girls.’”
Of course, there are hard statistics that suggest more and more people are flocking to YouTube and Hulu to create their projects. While this may seem promising for digital entertainment, one must also look at the current state of TV and film. Now, more than ever, it has become nearly impossible to have an original TV show picked up by a network in any capacity. Writers must have incredible connections and an established name before they can even get a meeting with a TV executive, and that is the easy part. YouTube, on the other hand, offers writers and creators a free creative space that requires no sign-off from executives, with minimal costs. If digital entertainment were the last stop for these creators then it would bode very well for the future of digital video. However, as the success of creators like Fred and the team behind Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” demonstrates, YouTube is just the starting point.
Most writers, directors and artists are joining YouTube to create original shows so that they will have a body of work to show to executives in television or film. It is much harder to convince someone to green light your script with no previous track record. YouTube and digital video are cheap creator-owned ways to get that experience under your belt. For many creators, YouTube is a launching point to something grander.
The debate on whether digital video will become the new generation of entertainment will most likely never reach a conclusion. Even as television all but obliterated the radio, podcasts have brought new life into the dying star that broadcast radio once was. When it comes to entertainment of any capacity, nothing is ever down and out forever. For digital video, the future is bright — it just may not be the future that executives have planned it to be.