YouTube Refocuses on Premium, and Once Again Misses the Point

YouTube’s director of content partnerships, Jordan Hoffner, has been hard at work signing on premium content providers like CBS, HBO, Showtime, C-SPAN and MGM. According to reports of a speech he made this week, the company’s No. 1 priority in 2009 is to get that content in front of viewers.

“‘YouTube is a great place for premium content,” Multichannel News quoted Hoffner as saying. “But we need to do a better job of creating areas where the user can go and know what they are going to get.”

Hoffner was speaking to a nagging problem we’ve mentioned many times on NewTeeVee: YouTube’s interface is set up for video blogs and virals, not premium content. It’s flat-out impossible, for example, to find those full episodes from CBS. Recent moves such as widescreen players and tougher policies on “sexually suggestive” content are starting points, but the site needs to radically redesign how it exposes and promotes premium video — things competitor Hulu brags about obsessing over.

When Google bought YouTube, users worried that having a corporate owner would suck the soul out of the site. But two years later, YouTube continues to be a chaotic melange, only bigger and broader than ever before. The site had 344 million global unique visitors in October.

As the world’s largest user-generated content site, there’s no such thing as “the YouTube community” in any kind of monolithic sense. That was made especially clear at last month’s YouTube Live, an event ostensibly aimed at “giving back” to YouTube’s constituency. The company flew in hundreds of YouTube users to the San Francisco event to both perform on stage and film video from the audience. Tickets were free, and the whole thing was streamed live. It was a ton of fun — and also totally, utterly weird. The stage ended up being a confining and unfitting environment for many of the acts, and the mix of legit stars with indie faves felt random at best.

Nick Vitale was invited to YouTube Live by Google, part of its new effort to make YouTube accessible but still quirky for newcomers — he and former The 9 star Maria Sansone were co-hosts of Poptub, a Pepsi-sponsored variety video show highlighting YouTube content and content creators being distributed through Google’s new Google Content Network. Once he arrived in San Francisco for YouTube Live, however, Vitale was fired from the gig and told he wasn’t able to attend the event (fittingly, he made a video about the firing from just outside the premises). Meanwhile, Sansone and crew had exclusive insider access to film the entirety of the event (and her YouTube Live wrap-up video is the show’s most successful episode ever, with a nearly half a million views).

Vitale admitted in a phone interview with NewTeeVee that he gave Poptub reason to fire him. “There was definitely some times when I could have been more professional,” he said. But he contended that he was hired precisely because he wasn’t “professional” — he got into video hosting via sketch comedy, and announcing surfing contests and the Harlem Globetrotters tour. Vitale said he felt like Poptub was struggling to find its way — and changing its expectations of him in the process — partly due to corporate influence from Pepsi and Google.

But rather than get into the grumblings of a fired employee (who, it should be said, maintains he harbors no ill will and hopes the show is successful), I bring up Vitale because — much like the trouble finding CBS episodes and the awkward (but fun!) YouTube Live — the story of Poptub is emblematic of YouTube’s growing pains. Poptub is being given every resource it needs to succeed, but it’s having trouble combining high gloss and grassroots.

Which brings us back to YouTube’s to-do list: If premium content is next year’s top priority, what about this year’s stated goal?

YouTube’s highest priority for 2008, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, was figuring out “the perfect solution of how to make money.”

Despite a flurry of recent ad product launches, we doubt the site can legitimately check that task off its list. But Schmidt may have been putting the cart ahead of the horse; before you can figure out how to make money, you need to figure out what you’re selling.

And Hoffner’s comment reveals another lapse in self-awareness: YouTube’s strength is not premium, nor should it be. Rather, YouTube has a tremendous (and surely monetizable) opportunity to show that premium and user-generated can coexist. All they need to do is figure out how.

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