Coming Soon: An All-New Series From YouTube

Over the last ten days or so, an understandably large proportion of coverage of the media market has been given over to just two basic stories -- one seasonal and one game-changing.

The first is the annual TV upfront, with its attendant presentations, deal-making and the frenzied posting of stories that keeps it all over the daily output of the trade press.

The second is the almost equally frenzied round of acquisitions by the likes of Yahoo, WPP, Microsoft and Google of just about all the online ad services businesses that could possibly be snapped up. In what seemed like a rerun of the Texas land-grab, no one seemed to want to risk being left behind in the scramble. More than enough has been written about the significance of all this, and you don't need me to go over it all again here. I will say, though, that it is interesting to consider the implications of the likes of Microsoft now having ownership of advertising service businesses that effectively makes it -- at least in part -- a Madison Avenue player. If this works to Microsoft's advantage, can we expect to see it use Avenue A / Razorfish as a vehicle to buy up other small to mid-sized agencies?



Meanwhile, as we've all been busy taking in the enormity of some of these deals and speculating on their significance, another piece of news slipped quietly by most of us, the lack of fanfare perhaps masking another development that may in the future come to be seen as a somewhat important blend of TV and online.

I'm speaking of the announcement that YouTube and CNN are partnering to sponsor a Democratic Party presidential debate (and are apparently in talks with the GOP to a similar end), which will be available online. On the surface this is original, but not necessarily earth-shattering. With the increased amount of political content on YouTube and the upswing in online activity on the part of the various presidential candidates (of which I believe at the last count there were in excess of 130 -- they're rumored to be thinking of forming their own party), it makes sense that the debates will find their way online in an "official" capacity sooner rather than later. If that's the case, someone like CNN is bound to be involved. It also makes sense to leverage the potential reach offered by YouTube (it will also bring a level of professionalism that many of the candidates have shown themselves apparently incapable of achieving in the online space).

However, to me, what's more interesting than the fact of a presidential debate making it onto YouTube through such a collaboration, is the fact that this appears to be more of a joint endeavor than simply taking content provided by a producer and putting it out there. Indeed, on the face of it at least, this begins to look like YouTube taking what may be a first tentative step towards original content production. Admittedly it's a long way from collaborating to distribute a debate to producing comedy or drama, but it's not entirely out of the question. After all, there is more than one start-up from the dotcom era that has sought to move into content production for the online space -- and no doubt others will follow.

Although YouTube (and others like it) will doubtless always rely on the vast quantities of user-generated content that will be posted to its site, creating certain types of content that could evolve into some sort of "programming" would not be beyond the wit of a smart team of commissioning editors and others trawling the home site for content.

Formats such as those spawned by the "American Idol" approach would work eminently well within YouTube. You could watch performances, the judging and the coaching in individual chunks according to preference and available time, with the content overall accumulating a sizable audience. The "schedule" would be determined by when different rounds of the competition and the related content became available, and voting periods would work as they currently do. (Admittedly it would be nice to think that we could see something more original, but the show serves as an illustration).

If YouTube were to go down this path (and who's to say it won't?), it would add a level of professionalism to some of the content without compromising the edginess of user-generated material, and it would lessen some of the complications of dealing with the split personalities of the content majors -- who on the one hand like the marketing platform the site provides, but on the other want to limit exposure of their precious programming / lifeblood.

Of course, it's entirely possible the good folks at YouTube aren't thinking this way at all and I'm off in fantasy land -- but just a few years ago, we'd probably have said the same about Microsoft buying an ad agency.

Either way, I'd be prepared to make a modest wager that within three to five years, YouTube will be producing and commissioning original content -- and some of that may even be repurposed for TV (whatever that looks like by then).

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