New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Apr 25, 2012
Standing in front of what looks like a frosted-blue shower stall, Hank Green, his nerd glasses riding low on his nose, puts his face up close to the tiny puppet on his finger.
“You’re pretty much the superman of science,” he says. “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that popular culture has not yet designed a female superhero that was more badass than the actual Marie Curie.”
Green’s video “Marie Curie: Great Minds” is a lot of things: profane, informative, casual without being condescending, and funny. (“Ultimately she left the world a much better place. Also, she was totally radioactive.”) But the one thing that it’s definitely not, for better or worse — mainly better — is television.
You might think that would go without saying for a 9 1/2-minute video on a YouTube channel, Green’s SciShow, where he delivers irreverent lectures on topics like earthquakes, colossal squid and why a plant would want to produce the active ingredient in marijuana.
But SciShow is one of the 100 or so “original channels” that YouTube announced in October. And those new channels — many from established entertainment and media companies — have been seen as this video site’s first major effort to take on the television industry, and television-and-film-based competitors like Hulu and Netflix, for advertising dollars. With regular weekly shows and viewer-friendly playlists, they are indeed slightly more televisionlike than the millions of mostly homemade videos that surround them. But the harder they try to resemble television, the less interesting they are.
About 60 channels are active, and during a week spent rooting among them like a truffle hog in the YouTube forest, I unearthed more than a few tasty morsels. On Digs, a home-and-garden channel from Meredith (publisher of Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal), “Craft and Burn” is a raucous, darkly funny comedy series written by and starring Kim Rosen as an antagonistic, essentially deranged crafter first shown in the bathtub clutching an owl basket to her chest.
At the Intelligent Channel there were smart, lengthy (by YouTube standards) interviews with cultural figures like the documentarian Alex Gibney and the comedian Gilbert Gottfried conducted by Richard Belzer (Detective Munch on “Law & Order: SVU”), who resembles a more prolix, pop-cultural Charlie Rose.
“Beauty Vlogger Boot Camp” on a channel called U Look Haute — pronounced “You Look Hot” — is a competition for video bloggers in which losers are kissed off with the line, “We’re not subscribing to your vlog.”
All of these shows could, with minor modifications, look at home on television, and the production values on many of the new channels are comparable to those on the lower and middle regions of cable. But the creators are conscious of the television conventions they are playing with, and their shows have a tinge of renegade spirit — a Webbiness — that most of the new channels lack.
On the other hand, entire categories of YouTube channels — on pop culture and gossip, music, sports, women’s topics — mostly feel like imitations of what cable outlets like MTV, Spike and Bravo already do: play music videos, assemble talking heads, riff on the news, sell merchandise. There’s a strong infomercial vibe to channels like BeFit, which is produced by Lionsgate and features things like the exercise routines of the stars of “The Hunger Games,” a Lionsgate film.
There is also a sameness to them, contrary to statements by Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s head of content, about the importance of tailoring offerings to ever-smaller niche audiences. As you click from Red Bull (sports) to Young Hollywood Network (pop culture) to Noisey (music) to American Hipster (just what it sounds like), what’s striking is how they start to blend into one another. They all seem pitched toward the same mythical viewer, presumably the one prized by Internet advertisers, whose mind appears to be occupied with a sticky mix of celebrity gossip, blockbuster movies, video games, zombies, action sports and news of the weird.
Watching these channels, in their bland uniformity, underlines a continuing reality: Even as television and Internet viewing converge, with people watching television shows on their laptops and online videos on their 6-foot flat screens, there are intractable differences between YouTube and television.
The shortness and vast abundance of videos, along with the easy but largely random nature of navigation among them, make YouTube an oddly static, timeless experience, no matter how quickly you click from one video to the next. Its channels are video archives, not places where one show follows another.
Watching television may be an equally stationary activity, but the rigid organization of its offerings (and their relatively manageable number) give the experience, even when time-delayed, a temporality that YouTube lacks. Watching television feels like making progress, even if it’s toward no worthwhile goal.
That’s not to say that one experience is better than the other, just that they’re different. The clarity and, let’s be honest, greater quality of the older medium (no one’s making anything for the Web that belongs in the same sentence with the best television shows) is balanced by the variety and energy of YouTube.
That energy is represented among the new channels by a small number producing distinctive, less mainstream work. Often the things I liked best felt like pure emanations of geek culture, relatively untainted by corporate marketing impulses.
Many of the creators of these channels are YouTube stars of long standing who, with the original-channels initiative, have a chance at more attention and better financing. Hank Green and his brother John have been making videos as the Vlogbrothers and posting them on YouTube since 2007; their original channel has more than 216 million views. For the new project they created two channels, SciShow and Crash Course, which offers lessons in science and world history.
Mondo Media, another YouTube giant (1.13 billion views), has organized its stable of inventive, often obscene cartoon series into convenient playlists on its new channel, Mondo. At Numberphile, mathematicians discourse, enthusiastically and winningly, on numbers — the properties of 3 or 666 or 13,983,816 (the odds against picking all six winning numbers in the British lottery).
The most inviting and right-feeling of the original channels may be Geek & Sundry, as befits the persona of its creator, the actress and writer Felicia Day, as the geek’s geek. It’s now the YouTube home for “The Guild,” Day’s influential Web series about role-playing online gamers.
One thing a YouTube channel can do better than a television one is express succinctly the point of view of its creator — just ask Oprah Winfrey — and everything on Geek & Sundry embodies the fact that online or off, Day, who is appearing in Syfy’s egghead dramedy “Eureka,” never hides how smart and funny she is.
In the end, watching the new YouTube channels did at times resemble watching television, although not the set in my living room. A lot of it was like watching the television in the elevator or the back seat of the cab, with its loops of vaguely helpful information. But at least on YouTube, Felicia Day or Hank Green is just a click or two away.