Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

YouTube’s New Subscription Service: Stars Not Included

youtube ufcYouTube finally rolled out its paid subscription service yesterday, which generated a lot coverage.

But the YouTube folks went out of their way to downplay the launch, describing it is as the first stage of an experiment.

We should take them at their word.

Yes, the notion of the world’s biggest video site selling content could be a big deal. One day. But right now there’s not much there there.

Take a look at the initial list of channels YouTube rolled out yesterday, which the site says will eventually balloon to 53 offerings from 30 partners. You’ll notice a couple of things:

  • With the exception of “Sesame Street” (announced but not available yet), National Geographic and the UFC, there aren’t any mainstream brands or shows.
  • Just as important: With the exception of The Young Turks (also announced but not available), there aren’t any YouTube-native stars — people/brands/channels who have built big fan bases on the site, and who could presumably convince some of them to pay for extra access.

It’s not surprising to see the Big Media companies steering clear of YouTube. Those guys are wary of Google in general, and when it comes to video, they have a very big, very lucrative business set up already. And their efforts to rent movies on the platform haven’t gone anywhere.

YouTube will have to make a compelling case for them to start selling subscriptions, which is sort of the point of the experiment, anyway.

It is eyebrow-raising to see the lack of YouTube talent there. YouTube has been talking up subscriptions to some of them as they complain about disappointing ad sales, and it seems as though at least a few would want to try it out — not to put all of their stuff behind a paywall, but at least to offer some extras to die-hard fans.

I assume some of that will change over time. YouTube is stressing that it expects to see more partners once it sets up a self-service subscription tool in the next few weeks. And at least a few big players, like Machinima, have been talking about subscription plans.

But it’s not like subscriptions are a surprise. YouTube has been talking about the concept in broad terms for at least a year, and in earnest since last fall. Anyone who wanted to test the concept has had plenty of time to get ready.

So why aren’t they there now?

The optimistic explanation is that they’re waiting to see how it works for yesterday’s guinea pigs, and if it pans out, they’ll show up.

The more cynical version: They’ve decided that if they are going to sell stuff, they’re not going to do it on YouTube — they’ll use the site to promote themselves to a billion people a month, but they’ll make sure they keep additional revenue streams out of Google’s hands.

Both sound pretty plausible to me.

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo