Will Users or the Pros Prevail?

As Internet video moves from amateur hour to primetime, the question arises whether professionally produced material will begin to crowd out the user-generated clips that have made YouTube a media phenomenon. Already, a new wave of video initiatives  promising higher quality production values are popping up on sites previously known for hosting viral clips.

Consider the most recent example, MySpace TV, a new stand-alone video service that aims to emphasize longer-form, professional content over guy-falling-off-skateboard clips.

Then there’s Veoh TV, the latest version of Veoh’s downloadable video player. Using peer-to-peer technology, it allows users to watch video from anywhere on the Web, whether or Revver. The service features a DVR-style menu of choices, and lets subscribers record videos for later viewing. To complete the TV analogy, a standard remote control as well as a computer mouse can be used with the service.

The upgrades reflect the pressure first-generation video sites are feeling from the new crop of Internet TV rivals such as Joost, Babelgum and NewSite, the video joint venture of News Corp. and NBC Universal. Unlike the initial group of Web video startups, these ventures were launched with the intent of delivering professional programming.

Joost, which bills itself as “next-generation TV,” has already lined up a roster of 30 blue-chip advertisers including Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and IBM while still in beta.

YouTube faces perhaps its biggest challenge yet in this transitional phase from viral video to Internet TV. So far, it’s shunned pre-roll video spots for fear of alienating users accustomed to watching commercial-free clips. An indication of the backlash pre-roll ads might invite came recently when YouTube prominently featured videos recommended by editors as part of an overall site upgrade. Users reacted angrily to the change and YouTube quickly reversed course.

But now, as part of a large, publicly-traded company, YouTube not only has to answer to users but also satisfy Google shareholders, who expect the unit to justify its $1.65 billion purchase by making money. If YouTube is to adopt more ad-friendly content to keep pace with competitors, it will have to reconcile with the major media companies with whom it’s battled over copyright issues.

It already faces a $1 billion copyright infringement suit by Viacom for carrying clips of shows like “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” and a separate copyright suit by the English Premiere League football association. Even if YouTube were to join other sites in shifting toward professional programming, that would call into question the purpose of the site. If its popularity stems from being anti-TV, then why should it become more like TV?

YouTube can’t create a separate video site like MySpace has because video is its core offering, not simply a feature of a broader social network. And “YouTube TV” would be an awkward pairing, in more than just name. But how YouTube maintains credibility while making a profit remains a fuzzy picture.

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