It’s difficult to overstate how completely we Americans are ruled by television. On a typical day, you and your fellow countrymen watch about four hours and 39 minutes of live TV, plus an additional 26 minutes of “time-shifted” (i.e., DVR’d) programming, according to Nielsen. That’s more time, by far, than we spend with any other technology: more than we surf the Web, more than we use our phones, more than we play video games. In a given week, the average American child will spend more than a full day—nearly 27 hours—in front of the tube. And children don’t even watch as much TV as adults. Generally, the older you get in America, the more television sucks you in. The average senior citizen spends more than two full days of every week in front of the TV.
It has been ever thus. In some ways the most astonishing fact about television isn’t how much we watch now, but how much we’ve always watched, and how impervious TV has been to every cultural and technological shift in recent American history. Consider everything that’s happened in society over the last few decades. More women went to work, everyone’s working hours increased, we quit bowling leagues, we suffered through a handful of recessions and enjoyed a couple booms, and we endured several wars. We also got the Web, mobile gadgets, better game consoles, e-readers, DVRs, BitTorrent, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Other media industries—journalism, music, publishing, video games—have been transformed or decimated by these changes. But TV? Whatever else has happened in American life, TV just kept doing better. If you look at a chart of household TV viewing from 1950 to 2009, it’s a straight upward arrow. In the last couple years, live TV-viewing has begun to dip just slightly, but the decline has been offset by a rise in time-shifted viewing. Overall, despite every technology that has come along to usurp or disrupt it, we watch about as much TV in 2013 as we’ve ever watched.
I shower you with all these stats not to depress you. Instead, the numbers underscore the huge opportunity that’s driving Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and dozens of startups looking to transform how we watch TV: by giving us more choice over what we see, by adding new interfaces (like voice control), and by unhooking us from a monthly cable bill. But the same stats also illustrate the difficulty of their quest. If nothing has threatened traditional live television so far, what new tech could possibly get us to switch from the tube?
Well, how about YouTube? Over the last couple years, the Google-owned video-streaming site has attempted to transform itself from a vast repository of clips into something more refined and worthy of our sustained attention: the perfectly personalized television network. If the gambit succeeds, one day not long from now you’ll think of YouTube as a cable network built just for you, a place you escape to for entertainment, news, learning, and voyeurism, no matter what device you’re using or where you are.
YouTube has certain natural advantages in its battle to win the TV wars, the most conspicuous of which are scope and scale. The company aims to deliver its videos to every device, from PCs to TVs to phones, in any corner of the world. In May, it announced that people now watch about 6 billion hours of YouTube videos per month, a 50 percent increase over last year. That’s more than any other video site on the planet—Netflix, for instance, serves about 1 billion hours a month. But it’s far less time than we spend with traditional TV. We watch as much YouTube in a month as we watch TV in a day.
YouTube’s efforts to turn itself into the next generation of television have been chronicled before—Fast Company, The New Yorker, and Time have documented the firm’s $100 million push to create hundreds of new channels by indie producers. (The fund also went to produce video at established sites, including, for a time, some of the offerings on Slate’s YouTube channel.) At the same time, YouTube is working on deals to stream the high-budget shows that you get on TV. But two problems have hampered the site’s effort to mimic television. The first is speed. Can YouTube ever load its videos as quickly as you can switch channels on TV, and stream them at the same quality you expect on the tube? The second issue is “discovery.” Finding what you want to watch on television isn’t easy, but it’s a problem of manageable scope. On YouTube, the choices aren’t infinite, but they might as well be. A given YouTube video tends to be shorter than most TV programming, it appeals to a far more limited and precisely tailored audience, and it’s drowned in a sea of millions of other clips. How will you ever find enough stuff on YouTube, then, to make your experience comparable to what you get from the flat-screen on your wall?
This being Google, the solutions to the speed and discovery problems involve lots of engineering tricks. Last year, YouTube began radically overhauling the way it streams videos to users. In the past, when you requested a video from the site, it would send you a single stream containing the whole video. Once the content left YouTube’s servers, the company no longer had any control over it; if there was some hiccup along the way, it couldn’t serve you a lower-quality video or reroute your request to a different server in another part of the world. So you’d watch the annoying spinner while your video “rebuffered.”