Think of an iconic television series. Shows like Seinfeld, Star Trek and I Love Lucy probably come to mind.
Now, think of an iconic YouTube video — like that one where a panda sneezes.
For some, it’s hard to see YouTube as a source of quality entertainment. Nevertheless, YouTube has a very different vision for itself; the company has plans to move beyond user-generated content. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported YouTube will soon create original programming for more than 100 channels.
YouTube’s shrewd plan reflects a shift in our television habits. In the 20th century, cable television took radio’s place as America’s primary source of entertainment. This century, cable will be making way for a different supplier: the Internet.
The trend is already visible on college campuses. Most students are familiar with sites like Megavideo, where users can stream a seemingly infinite number of shows for free. Megavideo isn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it’s convenient enough to make most people overlook the grainy pictures.
As a result of streaming, many of us have stopped catching episodes when they air on cable. Instead, we watch them whenever it’s convenient. The Internet also provides access to older series, series that have been canceled and even ones that have never even aired in the United States.
These changes have already affected traditional cable channels. Take MTV’s decision to remake Skins, a popular British show. MTV was likely counting on a built-in market as Megavideo had introduced the original to thousands of web-savvy Americans.
The new version got canceled after one season. For people who already had access to the British version, a lackluster rehash just wasn’t enough.
These viewings will not always be confined exclusively to college students. Technological trends that start in college tend to spread fairly quickly.
It’s easy to forget that Facebook started out as a site for college kids. Nowadays, we struggle to hide our weekend pictures from our uncles, aunts and grandparents. Older generations have a strong online presence. If YouTube puts out more than 100 new channels, it isn’t a stretch to assume at least one of those channels will target an older generation.
The fall of cable has several implications for the future of media consumption.
First, viewers will have more choice than ever in what they consume. Big name brands will continue do everything they can to attract the largest share of viewers, but the Internet will accommodate everyone else. Building a website is much cheaper than building a traditional television channel. Media companies that can’t afford to spend big bucks will use viral marketing to spread content.
All that space will lead to niche interest channels. Think the Food Network is specific? Wait until there’s a channel devoted entirely to vegan baking.
Second, every television set will come with an internet connection. College students might be happy to curl up in their beds with a laptop, but families will want to gather around a screen. Smart televisions will allow families to continue to watch shows together — but the kids will be fighting over a mouse, instead of a remote control.
To prepare for the shift, traditional channels should start rethinking revenue models right now. Since its inception, YouTube has provided content for free, but traditional channels can’t say the same. Channels that want to stay ahead need to tackle an uncomfortable question: How can they make money when so many companies will be willing to give their shows away for free?
Six years ago, YouTube was born. Over the last two years, everyone from Katy Perry to President Barack Obama has signed up for accounts. The company’s ability to stay ahead of the times is remarkable.
We only have to wonder when everyone else will catch up.
Maya Itah is a senior majoring in communication. Her column “From Behind the Screen” runs Thursdays.