Here’s the thing about YouTube: It’s not television. It’s faster, larger in scope, and far less constrained. Sometimes that is very much not a virtue, but at its best it makes the site feel intimate and raw in a way that mass TV programming is not.
Even in its dumbest moments, YouTube leaves you in control. (It’s in the name, after all.) It lets you find almost anything: people teaching you how to do things, people telling stories, people playing games, people reviewing products, people falling down. Then there are the best-of clips of “actual” TV shows, the memes, and the billion other wormholes lurking below the surface.
To be clear, I fall within YouTube’s target audience. I’m a mid-20s guy who hasn’t subscribed to cable in four years, and uses the internet, apps, and video games to entertain me where TV entertained my parents. And on a pure percentage basis, most of YouTube’s videos are awful. But because it’s such a free-for-all, it’s usually home to the most interesting thing I watch on a given day.
Given that people watch YouTube for a billion hours a day — according to the company — I’m probably not alone. For context: A February report from The Wall Street Journal said Americans now watch 1.25 billion hours of television a day. YouTube’s figure is worldwide, and clearly the service is easier to access, but its number is growing, while TV’s is steadily going down.
All this time, though, there’s been a wall between YouTube’s user-generated content, and the live TV programming held by networks and cable operators. (Bootlegged and quickly-flagged copies of that programming aside.)
This is unique for a major streaming platform: For as much as they’ve pressured cable, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu still rely on the shows and movies you’d otherwise watch on “regular” TV. They all produce their own stuff now, yes, but they’re harder sells without that licensed backlog there to help. Take away the option to rent movies from YouTube, meanwhile, and little is likely to change.
So when YouTube announced it was creating a live-TV streaming service called YouTube TV, I got excited. The consumer dream for all video streaming services is to unbundle the cable package down to a show level, and let you watch those programs whenever and wherever you want. The idea, in effect, is to do for television what Spotify has done for music.
YouTube TV wasn’t pitched to go that far, but it is a chance to (mostly) fill the one big gap — fully licensed TV shows and movies, as they air — in a service that has almost everything else.
It wouldn’t be the One True Service that everyone outside of the cable industry wants — there are too many holes in YouTube TV’s channel lineup for that to happen today — but it could go further than any service before it in blending live-TV and on-demand content together.
Now that YouTube TV is available, though, it’s clear that the service isn’t really interested in making that happen. To be fair, there are some bridges between the two:
- A “Trending on YouTube” section on YouTube TV’s home tab shows you popular videos on YouTube proper.
- The kid-focused original shows from the YouTube Red subscription service are included.
- Certain channels that serialize their videos using YouTube’s “Series Editor” tool are put in a “Shows on YouTube” tab.
- If you search for a certain program, you can check out a curated selection of YouTube videos related to that program on a nifty show page. For instance, if you click the “Related on YouTube” tab on the show page for “The Bachelor,” you’ll see interview and talk show clips from YouTube that are related to the most recent season.
But YouTube TV’s site and app live separately from YouTube proper, and the former often keeps the latter’s videos in their own silo. That “Trending on YouTube” section sits at the very bottom of the home tab. Many popular YouTube channels do not use the Series Editor. Searching for those channels through YouTube TV usually brings you nothing. And, outside the stuff mentioned above, most links to YouTube videos on YouTube TV will just prompt you to open the main YouTube app.
If you subscribe to YouTube TV and go to the main YouTube site, meanwhile, the only tie-in you see is an option on the side panel to “Get YouTube TV.”
What you’re left with is another iteration on the formula already set by Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now. YouTube TV is a very good-looking iteration of that formula, it’s generous with DVR space, and, crucially, it’s the first to stream shows without technically falling apart out of the gate.
But it only feels like YouTube in name and aesthetics. Otherwise, it’s just a smaller, cheaper version of cable, with all the caveats and annoyances that implies. (Plus a few more easily preventable shortcomings.) And that’s what it wants to be — even the serialized YouTube and YouTube Red videos here are made to feel more like TV shows.
There are sound reasons for YouTube to keep its two services distant. The company will likely tell you that YouTube and YouTube TV are different business models; the former needs ad revenue (YouTube Red aside), while the latter needs subscriptions. Keeping the live TV stuff at arm’s length from the user-generated stuff makes it easier to see why it specifically may be worth $35 a month — and thus why people who are more interested in live TV may want to use YouTube more often.
Maybe YouTube (the company) just needs the money. Maybe it just wants to drive eyeballs to YouTube Red shows in an environment where they may feel more natural. Maybe the networks wanted to keep their stuff from getting buried. Maybe there isn’t a way to merge live-TV content into a site like YouTube without creating an interface nightmare.
That’s all fair enough. What I object to is the idea that YouTube TV should be a separate experience because regular YouTube viewers aren’t as interested in live TV. That may be true in some cases, but most people cut the cord because because the stuff they like is saddled with the stuff they’ll never care about, not because every show is bad.
YouTube is successful because it actively avoids that trap, while still providing fast entertainment. (It’s also free.) If it gave you a way to easily jump from a fail video, to a live Premier League game, to a Let’s Play, to a DVR recording of “Parks and Recreation” (or whatever you like), all within the same app, that’d be powerful and convenient in a way AT&T, Sony, and Dish cannot recreate.
YouTube TV already knows how to mark favorites and personalize the shows you’re more likely to watch, so it wouldn’t seem too hard to work that into the suggestions you’re given on YouTube proper.
For now, though, that holy grail remains distant. Maybe Hulu can get closer.