The world of the internet will soon be on television, thanks to a host of new services. But what’s worth watching and will it pay?
December 15, 2010
The YouTube video “Double Rainbow” could be on your TV soon

In July, my Smallscreen column was about all the joys of video-on-demand, pointing out how it is available on your televisions, PCs and iPads if you own a games console or subscribe to Virgin cable. Were Prospect readers paying attention? Was there a stampede to BBC iPlayer, 4OD and ITV Player? Apparently not, as the percentage of us watching shows in this way remains tiny. But 2011 might see this change, with the arrival of the next, and possibly last, revolutionary leap in television. YouView, Google TV and others will swamp the market with set-top boxes that will connect our televisions to the internet. And if you haven’t been persuaded by the chance to watch shows when you feel like it, rather than when the schedule dictates, then consider the wealth of content that lies beyond tellyland.

Within four years, video may account for 90 per cent of all internet traffic. Because we can only see this stuff on our computing devices at the moment, peak viewing is at lunchtime. That’s when we’re looking for something to watch while consuming our tofu salads and organic carrot juice at our workstations. But it will be a different matter when internet television is added to “sit back” entertainment at home. Already media buyers are paying television-style rates for the pre-roll adverts served before selected YouTube clips (YouTube accounts for more than 80 per cent of videos viewed online). In other words, internet video is starting to resemble television’s economic model. Here is a timely review of some current YouTube favourites, soon to be available on our domestic television sets.

“Double Rainbow” features wobbly video of this meteorological phenomenon in the Yosemite National Park, with a voiceover from a cameraman who may have been smoking something powerful, giving new meaning to the phrase “happy camper.” It has been viewed 20m times. “Unforgivable” is a stream-of-consciousness tirade by a black man parodying Afro-Caribbean attitudes to women. His first rant attracted 15m views, giving rise to a series of follow-ups. And 4m have watched “Wasted Guy at Coachella,” in which an inebriated music fan has an existential struggle with his flip-flops. These “user-generated” clips do not usually come with adverts because their success was unpredicted. Advertisers prefer professional content, which they also regard as safer (it’s referred to as a “well-lit area”).

Two music videos popular right now are: “Being a Dickhead’s Cool” by the Dickheads and “Mozart’s House” by Clean Bandit. These kind of videos could have advertisements served around them but the music industry has been painfully slow to recognise the opportunity. And it is not only advertisers who like professional content like this. YouTube’s owners, Google, are hoping to make the website profitable by hosting more ad-friendly television and film content which can be easily monetised.

Watch the splendid “I’m Fucking Matt Damon” sketch by the comedian Sarah Silverman, thus far viewed by 12m. Also try “It’s Gay To Smoke”—a hyper-cruel parody of US breakfast television. The notorious re-edits of the film Downfall have been followed by videos which subvert popular television shows. “Fry on Wagner” combines Stephen Fry’s breathless praise of the German composer with footage of the pub singer of the same name in The X Factor: “My love affair with Wagner started when I was a child… it’s released forces within me…” “The Bloody Apprentice” is a wonderfully seditious edit of Alan Sugar’s more insane pronouncements. “Don Draper Says ‘What?’” celebrates the central character in Mad Men (“he uses the word ‘what’ as Van Gogh used colour or Beethoven used sound”). And “The Gillian McKeith Song” by Brett Domino is a homage to the latest star of I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!: “Oh Gilly why you been so silly? I wouldn’t have a balti if I didn’t like chilli.”

There is much debate about what will happen when our televisions are connected to the internet. YouView—a set-top box which will combine Freeview channels with internet catch-up services—is an attempt by our traditional broadcasters (the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV are among its partners) to impose their imprimatur on this new world. But ITV and C4 are, at the same time, pursuing different approaches. C4 has made all its programmes available on YouTube, seeking the maximum number of viewers from any platform. ITV has not. Its executives compel viewers to come to their broadcast channels to watch Coronation Street and Downton Abbey. They don’t want Google to cut out their role—and they hope not to share their advertising revenues. Which approach will triumph? Smallscreen will keep you informed. But first we need to find some new year cash for more set-top boxes and television sets.