The Daily Telegraph
Youtube is the latest to online giant to threaten the future of television
As young people abandon traditional TV for Youtube, the BBC is trying to beat the website at its own game, finds Paul Kendall
Aman in his twenties is standing in front of a video camera. Behind him is a bookcase. It is full of baseball caps and soft toys and precisely no books. “So, as you guys know, I love
Call of Duty Gun Game. It is my favourite to mess around, rank up and try and win,” he starts. “Today, I am going to be experiencing Gun Game on Black Ops III for the very first time. How will I do? Will I beat it? Will I suck? Let’s find out.”
This is Alastair Aiken, better known to his fans as Ali-a, and he is one of Youtube’s biggest stars. Since launching his channel on the site nine years ago, he has attracted more than 14 million subscribers. Improbable as it sounds, what they log on in their droves to do is watch Aiken, in his home in Surrey, playing video games.
Not long ago, TV executives wouldn’t give the time of day to “bedroom” stars such as Aiken, with their amateurish camera skills and jumpy editing. They knew Youtube was popular (the site is used by more than 1.5 billion people, a fifth of the world’s population), but much of the content was so anodyne and bizarre that it posed no threat to “proper” programme makers.
In recent months, that policy has undergone a “refresh”, as they might say in the satire W1A. Bosses at the BBC now think the platform has become so popular with young people – future licence-fee payers – that, far from shunning Youtubers, executives are scrambling to sign them up.
Among a slate of programmes for teenagers about to go into production is a car show, I’m Not Driving That, to be hosted by the aforementioned Ali-a, and a sex education series called
Mimi Tells it Straight, presented by Mimi Missfit, a 21-year-old popular on Youtube for her vlog (or video blog) about beauty and fashion. There is also going to be a summer-camp drama,
The A List, a reality programme, and a series of “junior Panorama”style documentaries that will cover subjects such as gang violence and the environment, all of which will be made available in a new teen section of the BBC’S iplayer app.
As well as all this, the corporation is planning to launch its own channels on Youtube, with its own roster of vloggers covering popular topics such as gaming, football, street dance and WWE wrestling.
What prompted the change? Stuart Rowson, BBC Children’s Head of Discovery, admits that, for years, the BBC “put its hands over its ears and just said, ‘No, we’re not playing the Youtube game.’” But a report published last year made for some truly shocking reading.
Issued by Ofcom, Britain’s media watchdog, it revealed that more 12-15-year-olds had heard of Youtube than had heard of BBC One. The platform, which is owned by Google, was the only “content provider” that a majority of 12-15-year-olds said they used “often” (the proportion who said they “often” watched Netflix was 38 per cent; the figure for ITV and the BBC was less than a third). And 43 per cent of the same age group said they never watched BBC One or BBC Two.
“Television is facing an existential crisis when it comes to young viewers,” says Jessica Goodfellow, a senior reporter for the industry magazine Broadcast. “Youtube has only been around since 2005, but in that time it has overtaken traditional TV to become the go-to medium for young people, especially early teens.”
As well as gaming channels like Ali-a’s and vlogs by Youtube stars such as Zoella and Brighton’s Joe Weller, young viewers flock to the site to watch film trailers, music videos, sports highlights, clips from mainstream TV programmes (such as James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke), and a variety of other channels that serve niche audiences.
And now the platform is turning its attention to long-form, quality content. Youtube Premium, a subscription service, launched in the UK last month with two series starring established Youtube stars and aimed at current users of the site: a football travel show hosted by Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch (otherwise known as the F2 Freestylers); and a stunt show presented by seven British Youtubers known as the Sidemen, which also features mainstream personalities such as Nicole Scherzinger and Bear Grylls.
The company has plans to branch out into other genres with shows that will appeal to a broader audience. The American version of Youtube Premium has already released Impulse, a classy sci-fi series produced by The
Bourne Identity director Doug Liman, and is working on a fantasy-comedy series by Get Out director Jordan Peele and another sci-fi drama called Origin from Left Bank Pictures, the company that makes The Crown.
“Everyone talks about the threat of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon to traditional broadcasters, but Youtube could be the long-term winner,” says Goodfellow. “It will continue to serve its niche audiences, but it’s also going to focus on premium content which it will tailor to its millions of users as they grow up.” The other ace Youtube has up its sleeve is its pure addictiveness.
“Youtube is a commercial platform. It’s incentivised to keep you on the platform for as long as possible so that it can keep serving you ads and keep making money from you,” says Goodfellow. “To do that it has a recommendation algorithm which is tracking you the whole time [while on the site].”
Netflix has a machine that tries to do something similar, but it has nowhere near the same amount of content to extrapolate from.
Despite the average age of their viewers going ever upwards, ITV and Channel 4 are still trying to ignore Youtube, while the BBC’S decision to “dance with the devil” may provoke accusations of dumbing down.
Rowson, however, insists the BBC has a moral imperative to take Youtube on.
“In my childhood, the only things I was able to watch was stuff that had been professionally made by people who had the interests of kids at heart,” he says. “Children these days have more choice, but everybody is in it for their own ends. Youtube does not take responsibility for the effect its content is having. Amazon wants to be an amazing commercial entity. Netflix wants to drive up subscriptions.
“Who is going to be the beacon for quality? That is absolutely the BBC’S responsibility.”
Rowson believes that, as long as the BBC puts its content in the places where young people go to be entertained and informed – phones and tablets as well as the television – then “quality will out”.
“Kids and adults alike will always need a bit of popcorn culture,” he says. “But they demand quality programmes like Blue Planet, too. It’s our job to keep them in our BBC ecosystem.”