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.”
Today, across YouTube, rebuffering occurs far too often. Any given video will stop and start around 3 to 5 percent of the time. This differs vastly by country—videos in Japan rebuffer less often than video in India, where the Internet is slower—but the company’s goal is to improve these rates everywhere. “Imagine if you got a new television provider and your videos stopped 5 percent of the time, or imagine if it took you five seconds to change channels,” says Shishir Mehrotra, a vice president of product at YouTube. “You would get a new television provider, and you wouldn’t change channels very much.” Mehrorta’s goal is to reduce YouTube’s rebuffering rate to around 0.1 percent, and he wants videos to start playing within 200 milliseconds of your choosing them, or what he calls “instant time.”
To make this possible, last year YouTube implanted a new serving technology it calls “sliced bread.” Today, if you play a YouTube video on a PC browser (and soon on other devices), the company will break up the clip into lots of little pieces, and then it will send you each bit of video as it becomes necessary. The old streaming method was akin to throwing a full manuscript of Infinite Jest in the mail; the new way is like sending each page of Infinite Jest by a superfast bike messenger. The approach lets the company change how your video is being streamed as you’re playing it. It can send you lower-quality slices of video right at the start, so your clip begins to play instantly, and then improve the quality if it determines that your connection is solid. So far, the company says, sliced bread has reduced rebuffering by 40 percent, resulting in tens of millions more hours viewed.
The discovery problem is thornier than the speed issue. YouTube’s partner program has led to lots of new content on the site. Thousands of channel owners, many of whom have garnered millions of subscribers, now earn money from their YouTube videos. Some of these are quite popular: The comedy duo Smosh have 10 million subscribers, the gaming channel Machinima has 8 million, and a fashion and beauty channel run by Bethany Mota has 2 million. But aside from a few breakout successes, most YouTube channels aren’t of mainstream interest; by design, they appeal to niche audiences. To make itself comparable to traditional TV, YouTube needs to fashion these small videos into a larger, more comprehensible viewer experience for viewers. It needs to know what you like, and to serve you a new video that you’ll love each time the previous one ends.
To do so, YouTube has subtly changed its approach to figuring out viewers’ interests. In the past, YouTube leaned heavily on predictive algorithms that used your previous viewing behavior to guess what you might want to do next. “Our assumption has been that users are inherently lazy—they’re not going to take a lot of effort to tell us what they like,” says Noam Lovinsky, a director of product management at YouTube. “But I think that’s a mistake, and you’ll see us change that approach.” In particular, YouTube has been experimenting with ways to encourage more viewers to sign up for more channels. Once people do sign up for a channel, they tend to come back to YouTube more often, and when they do, they watch for longer stretches of time. (The number of people subscribing to channels has doubled in the last year, YouTube says, though it declined to give Slate the actual figures.)
The big question is how much like traditional live TV YouTube will become after it makes these improvements—and how much it will stand apart from TV, too. The dream is that when you flip on your YouTube, you’ll get popular long-format shows as well as niche-ier stuff that you can watch in line at the supermarket or in a doctor’s waiting room.
“If we do a good job of this, the ways people will engage with YouTube will go beyond the reasons they currently turn on their TV,” Mehrotra says. “The number of things that compete for users’ time has increased enormously in the last 30 years, yet every year the amount of time that people spend watching television has gone up.” In other words, as good as YouTube gets, the real tube isn’t going anywhere. Instead, YouTube is betting that our overall appetite for screen time will keep increasing. YouTube and live TV will exist side-by-side, and none of us will ever get anything done.