The People’s Republic of YouTube
APPEARING on “The Daily Show” the other night to plug his new Comedy Central program, “Freak Show,” David Cross joked that he assumed all the viewers had already seen the show. You’re right, Stewart said with a laugh, “None of them get Comedy Central, they all [go to] YouTube.”
Welcome to the new media universe, where for millions of video junkies, the best TV network in America isn’t Comedy Central, MTV, ESPN or even HBO, but YouTube, the amazing website whose video clips are viewed more than 100 million times each day. Launched last year, the website has enjoyed an astounding ascent, being bought last week by Google for $1.65 billion. In an era increasingly defined by audience-driven events, YouTube represents the triumph of bottom-up culture and another sign that old media businesses, from record companies and TV networks to newspapers like The Times, are going to see more of their audience migrating to the Internet.
In the old days -- meaning way, way back in 2004 -- if I’d missed ABC’s Diane Sawyer grilling Mel Gibson or Bill Clinton getting into a spitting match with Fox News reporter Chris Wallace, I’d kick myself for not taping it, then frantically scramble around trying to find a replay. Now I go to YouTube. The website is best known for its homemade videos, like the guy who guzzles Mentos and Diet Coke or Lonelygirl15, whose two-minute videos became a Web mystery sensation this summer.
When I heard that Barbra Streisand had cursed out a heckler at her Madison Square Garden concert, I didn’t go to CNN -- I clicked on YouTube. Sure enough, a fan had immediately posted a video of La Streisand cussing like a sailor.
The impact of this instantaneous access has been earthshaking, from politics to pop culture. Speaking at a conference in Paris last week, Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney minced few words about how thoroughly the landscape has been altered. “The digital revolution has unleashed a consumer coup,” she said. “Audiences have the upper hand and show no sign of giving it back.”
YouTube is already having an impact on this year’s election cycle. In years past, political candidates were sold essentially in the same way as movie stars -- in carefully staged settings and market-tested ads. Now the scripted veneer has been stripped away by young volunteers, armed with video cameras, who stalk opposition candidates, record their gaffes and post them on YouTube, not unlike the way the Smoking Gun displays embarrassing photos of badly behaved celebrities.
The best-known gotcha YouTube post came from an Indian American student tailing U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). The student recently captured an irritated Allen pointing him out and telling his supporters, “Let’s give a welcome to macaca here -- welcome to America.” The slur prompted a tsunami of media coverage that sent Allen’s campaign into a tailspin. Another popular series of clips shows U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) on the campaign trail, joshing about his Guatemalan gardener and struggling to stay awake during a Senate hearing.
FOR some, YouTube is a giant compendium of home videos; for others, an arts encyclopedia. Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, a recent convert, found he could use the site’s search engine to link to rare, long-ago performances by the likes of Count Basie, Pablo Casals, Andres Segovia and Jascha Heifetz. With Bravo and other networks swapping highbrow fare for “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” Teachout views YouTube as a cultural savior or, as he put it, “by posting this list of links, I have, in effect, created a Web-based fine arts video-on-demand site.” (See his posting at www.terryteachout.com.)
Though my tastes, alas, aren’t as lofty as Teachout’s, I’ve gotten just as much pleasure from my searches, having found Marvin Gaye’s incandescent performance of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game as well as a boozy rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” by Eddie Vedder at a Chicago Cubs game, with Vedder ad-libbing a key line in the song as “buy me some peanuts and crack.”
For my 8-year-old son, whose passions are baseball and gymnastics, I found a clip of St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith bounding onto the field, doing a round-off and back flip, plus vintage footage of baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.
YouTube is something special, a great leap forward in the democratization of pop culture. After seeing a video called “Lazy Muncie,” a spoof of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch called “Lazy Sunday” that had itself become a sensation after being posted on YouTube, KCRW-FM commentator Rob Long viewed the impact this way: “What does it say if you’re Lorne Michaels and it turns out there are two funny guys in Muncie who don’t need you to give them permission to make a funny little movie because YouTube is their network and YouTube doesn’t have a vice president of comedy development to say, ‘Yeah, but um, can it be about people in their 30s juggling relationships and their careers?’ ”
While some fans are justifiably worried that the sale of YouTube to Google will usher in the kind of advertising clutter rampant at MySpace, which looks like the Web equivalent of a Sunset Strip billboard forest, most of YouTube’s troubles have arisen from media companies who view video sharing as an attack on their copyrights and business models. Earlier this year, NBC forced the site to remove “Lazy Sunday,” believing fans should have to go to the network’s website to view it, apparently unaware that the young guys watching the clip on YouTube were the same guys who’d already stopped watching “SNL” and network TV in general.
This summer, NBC announced a marketing arrangement with YouTube, which was followed by licensing deals with CBS, Warner Music and Sony BMG Music. But the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that lawyers from News Corp., NBC Universal and Viacom still believe YouTube could be liable for copyright penalties of $150,000 per unauthorized video. Viacom, for example, claims that clips from its channels (including MTV and Comedy Central) are watched 80,000 times a day on YouTube, meaning potential penalties could run into the billions.
Amid all this saber rattling, everyone is wrestling with different attitudes about copyright issues. Two days after the Clinton-Wallace dust-up, Fox News forced YouTube to yank clips of the interview, claiming copyright infringement, apparently unhappy that so much traffic was going to YouTube instead of Fox News’ own site. But a day later the clip was back up.
Last month, Universal Music chief Doug Morris blasted YouTube and News Corp.-owned MySpace, calling them “copyright infringers,” saying the sites “owe us tens of millions of dollars.” But last week Morris agreed to license Universal Music content to YouTube in return for some form of compensation. Morris declined to speak to me, but it seems clear that Universal will either negotiate a similar deal with MySpace or take legal action.
A MySpace lawsuit could be a big embarrassment for News Corp.'s Peter Chernin, who has been Hollywood’s most vocal advocate of copyright protection, calling it “a fundamental right that has become endangered in the Digital Age.” But shouldn’t that copyright protection also apply to music videos airing on MySpace? Record labels like Universal believe that MySpace, having recently inked a lucrative ad deal with Google, is building a business using content without compensating the copyright holders.
Chernin told me that MySpace has diligently adhered to copyright protection law, promptly taking down pirated material after notification and blocking links to pirated music sites. He said “we’re also in the process of testing fingerprinting technology that would identify pirated music” that would aid MySpace in its enforcement efforts.
As for building its business on content without compensating record companies, Chernin said, “People are going to MySpace to interact with their friends. The amount of music videos there is very small. The idea that pirated music content is a major contributor to its advertising revenue is laughable. It’s a total exaggeration.”
Asked if News Corp. would go after YouTube for copyright violations, Chernin said, “We don’t have any immediate plans to do anything, and frankly, if we did, we wouldn’t announce it now.”
In a related matter, Universal Music filed lawsuits Monday against Grouper and Bolt, two lesser-known sites involved
with user-generated content and social networking, that could test the premise that complying with take-down notices is sufficient under the current copyright law.
IT may take years for all these bewildering legal issues to play out. For me, the key question is: How much of this is piracy and how much is free promotion? If I see an eight-minute clip of “Family Guy” on YouTube, will I stop watching the show on Fox? Or will I become such a fan that I’ll start taping it or buy a full-season DVD? There is a legitimate argument for each side. One thing is indisputable: The Internet has robbed media giants of much of the rigid control they once had over their product.
When a hip-hop dance
phenomenon called chicken noodle soup swept the East Coast this summer, Universal Music quickly signed the group who’d recorded a song inspired by the dance. But before the
label’s official video arrived earlier this month, YouTube was awash with thousands of homemade videos of the song, with kids and even middle-aged men doing their own versions of the dance.
Will all that free exposure act as free publicity for the album? Or will it, as the record label fears, allow people to listen to the song as much as they want free, killing any impulse to buy it? What seems clear is that everyone, from media tycoons to songwriters and TV writers, may earn far less from their work in the years to come -- but reap the benefits in new ways, either through a piece of the ad revenue on sites like YouTube or by distributing songs and shows themselves.
For now, YouTube is an unruly swap meet. But it’s also the kind of level playing field where some noisy kid dancing in his underwear has just as much star power as a pampered celebrity. Is this a democracy or what?
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