After much talk about experimenting with live streaming video, YouTube dipped its toe in the water on the weekend, with a much-hyped event (at least in blogosphere terms) called YouTube Live, featuring some of the “cewebrities” that have emerged on YouTube over the past year or two — including Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday, LisaNova and Chad Vader, as well as a few big-name entertainment-industry stars like Katy Perry and Will.i.am. The show had the feel of an awards show, although it was one featuring stars most people probably wouldn’t recognize. So was it a success for YouTube? That depends a lot on your perspective.
According to numbers that Mogulus came up with (and that we confirmed with YouTube), YouTube Live saw about 700,000 simultaneous viewers at the peak of the event on Saturday night. As Peter Kafka notes in a column at All Things Digital, those aren’t really the kinds of numbers that would make for a successful show in TV Land. In fact, if a studio saw those kinds of viewership numbers, they would likely pull the plug on a show. In the TV business, if you’re not pulling in several million viewers a night, you’re toast. Using that as a benchmark, YouTube Live wasn’t exactly a blockbuster.
It’s worth remembering, however, that most TV shows cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, and they have to pull a couple of million viewers just to break even. And specials like award shows are even worse — they can cost as much as $30 million for a show like the Oscars (although they bring in a lot of ad revenue as well). From that point of view, YouTube Live looks like a relative bargain. It’s not clear how much YouTube paid stars like Perry and Soulja Boy to appear, but the bandwidth costs for streaming through Akamai likely weren’t that exorbitant, if estimates like this are in the ballpark (and we understand that they are). Less than $100,000 isn’t much, especially for a company like Google (although streaming costs could become substantial if YouTube decided to make it a regular thing).
The bigger question, however, is whether a live TV, “by appointment” type of experience fits with what YouTube is, or what it wants to be. I think many people would probably agree with Mashable writer Paul Glazowski, who said that live streaming isn’t really what he wants from YouTube — a site that most people associate with short clips that can be sampled whenever they want, rather than a full-length show that proceeds at a pre-determined pace. In many ways, the format of YouTube Live seemed to clash with what the brand stands for, from an entertainment point of view.
Whether YouTube can (or even wants to) move beyond that remains to be seen. The company no doubt feels some pressure to do so, if only because Hulu has been having such success with full-length, streaming shows. And despite the relatively small viewer numbers, YouTube Live likely still achieved something as a promotional event for the service, and as a community-building one as well. But before the company starts launching live events, it should be careful of straying too far from what its audience has come to expect; trying to be all things to all markets can be a recipe for disaster.