YouTube Web site, where viewers take control, is the biggest story in television

Friday, August 18, 2006

NEW YORK -- The fall TV season is about to begin. The push is on from the broadcast networks to tempt you into watching what they spent the past year pounding into shape.

At a moment when the networks would like nothing more than to make a splash -- another "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives" would be nice -- the biggest news in TV is the escalating instances of mutiny by viewers.

Watching what the networks set before them is fine. But more and more viewers want to cook as well as dine, which makes the TV story of the year the story of a Web site: YouTube.

Officially launched last December, this video-sharing service already plays more than 100 million clips per day with more than 65,000 video uploads added to its mammoth inventory. And those rates are skyrocketing.

Where does it end? "As more people capture special moments on video," its Web site declares, "YouTube is empowering them to become the broadcasters of tomorrow."

YouTube (slogan: "Broadcast Yourself") isn't the Internet's only video-sharing service. But it's the reigning brand, the talked-about phenomenon, and a mighty good example of the multiple roles now greeting yesterday's couch potato. These are get-up-and-do-something roles as artist, journalist, pundit, self-promoter, exhibitionist, prankster, weirdo and wag.

Now you, too, can be a TV producer and a TV programmer. Scheduling? That's in your hands on the receiving end, since clips are on demand, arranged in categories or searchable by various "tags." And you can be a distributor: E-mail any clip to your friends.

Ratings? Instant. Every clip appears with a running count of viewings, as well as how many viewers deemed it "a favorite." Not that anything is canceled for not being a hit. Unlike a network constricted by its two or three hours of prime time per night, the capacity of YouTube would appear to be boundless. No need here for one thing to be dropped to make room for another.

So what can you see? Make no mistake, a 10-second video aptly titled "Bunny the Dog Rubs Her Butt Against the Ground" isn't the stupidest, skeeziest or even briefest clip available. Nor is "Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot" the most whimsical. Or two pairs of fingers dancing to the tune of "Get Down Tonight" the most charming.

You find video testimony, as well. Katrina-themed clips from hurricane victims. Lebanese and Israelis supplying their images of war.

Meanwhile, broadcast images are being plucked off the air and granted an on-demand afterlife. The impromptu back rub that President Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-8 Summit last month? It's right here, for screening anytime. So is co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck having a hissy fit on ABC's "The View." A search of "David Letterman" turns up more than 1,000 clips.

YouTube's reach on occasion has actually eclipsed that of TV. In June, "Weekends with Maury & Connie" ended its brief run on MSNBC with a self-mocking version of "Thanks for the Memories" by Connie Chung. More than twice as many people saw it, post-broadcast, on YouTube.

YouTube is an escalating archive. A colossal clearinghouse. A proving ground. It's a virtual commons for anyone anywhere with a camcorder in reach. It's a valuable resource; a glorious time waster. And, of course, a breeding ground for buzz.

The most persuasive evidence that YouTube is rewriting TV rules emerged last month when "Nobody's Watching," a sitcom pilot pronounced dead after failing to find a broadcast home, found a warm reception on YouTube (where it logged a half-million viewings). With that sort of cyberspace validation, it was resurrected by NBC as a prospect for the 2006-07 schedule.

At about the same time, NBC and YouTube forged a strategic partnership that, among other things, lets NBC hype its fall shows on YouTube. What more proof do you need of new media's appeal than when the mainstream media jumps on board?

NBC is learning one of the new rules YouTube has showcased with its free-for-all policy: Exposure, not payment, is what counts. Spreading it around is key.

And NBC, along with the rest of mainstream media, will have to abide by a new cultural reality as set forth by Chris Anderson in his current best-seller, "The Long Tail": "A once-monolithic industry structure where professionals produced and amateurs consumed is now a two-way marketplace, where anyone can be in any camp at any time."

Other video-sharing sites are staking a claim in this two-way marketplace. In a story headlined "Beyond YouTube," Rolling Stone recommends 10 more, including iFilm.com, tv.blinkx.com, video.google.com and video.yahoo.com.

But for the moment, YouTube has the heat. It's the name on everybody's lips. And maybe the name says it all, proposing a convergence of You and Television, manifested on your PC screen as a vast community.

For all those who resisted plunging into the Internet's reservoir of video, YouTube may have the goods and the cachet to persuade them to get their feet wet. Silly, smart, raw and slick, YouTube with its gathering force is Must-See TV.

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