A half-dozen years ago, when the growing complexity of shows like Lost and 24 was making great swathes of prime time all but indecipherable to casual viewers, YouTube emerged as TV for dummies, a gloriously dependable source of old-fashioned cathode idiocy. In front of the boob tube, you may have needed CliffsNotes to follow the exploits of Jack Shephard and company. Online, there was always a comforting array of farting babies, ironic cats, and awesome car crashes to entertain you.
Today YouTube still mainlines a vast and indispensable stream of brainless, throwaway entertainment into our culture, but it also has become more focused and ambitious. Bedroom ranters discovered the audience-building virtues of production values and consistent programming schedules. YouTube began supporting the efforts of its most popular content creators through an invitation-only revenue-sharing program. Companies such as Big Frame and Revision3 began to identify, develop, publicize, and otherwise support emerging YouTube talent for a cut of their earnings.
In October 2011, YouTube announced that it was partnering with dozens of premier content creators—everyone from Ashton Kutcher to The Wall Street Journal—to create 96 new channels of original programming. Instead of merely giving them a cut of the advertising revenues once their shows were up and running, YouTube reportedly fronted them as much as $5 million each to develop their programming; in total, it pledged $100 million to the initiative. A few months ago, the company announced it was partnering with more creators to produce an additional 60 shows.
Such developments set the stage for obvious narratives about idealism lost and the dissolution of authentic grassroots culture: "YouTube Alienates Amateur Users by Courting Pros," an October Reuters headline declared. But the ensuing article sidestepped the central irony informing the story. The so-called amateurs were upset because shifts in YouTube's promotional efforts meant they were no longer getting as much traffic on the platform, which meant they were no longer generating as much income from YouTube's revenue-sharing program.
That "amateurs" have been making enough money on YouTube to complain about changes on the platform only underscores how much YouTube has empowered—and continues to empower—independent content creators. While many Internet companies have made it easy for individuals to distribute their creative work in ways that traditional broadcasting and publishing models never allowed, few actually compensate users for their help in toppling old media dynasties and creating fortunes anew. Google, which owns YouTube, does. And while Google is notoriously reluctant to provide specific financial information about YouTube, a company spokesperson reports via email that YouTube is currently paying "hundreds of millions of dollars a year to partners" and that "thousands of channels are making six figures a year." Not bad for amateurs!
"Even to this day, I'm amazed that places like Facebook don't share ad revenue with you," says Rafi Fine, who with his brother Benny has been creating online video since the early 2000s. "Google and YouTube could have totally done the same thing." Instead, YouTube implemented a revenue-sharing program in 2007. In doing so, it expedited its evolution from a haven for home movies and copyright infringement to a place where creators had a real incentive to produce increasingly ambitious content and the means to keep doing so as their work found an audience.
The Fine Brothers exemplify the process. After graduating from high school in the late 1990s, they started submitting shot-on-video feature films to festivals around the country. Fairly quickly, however, they realized the Internet offered a potential path to greater exposure, and they began posting video clips to their own website. When YouTube came along, they jumped at the chance to let someone else host their work; those were the days when bandwidth was so expensive that a hit video could be a problematically costly success.
Around 2008, the Fine Brothers started earning some money from the revenue-sharing program. In 2010, when they created a breakout series called Kids React, which features precocious tots adorably crucifying viral videos and other pop culture phenomena, they began making enough to pay all their living expenses from YouTube earnings. In 2011, when YouTube tapped them to be part of the original channels initiative, the advance they received to create MyMusic, a sitcom about a fictional music infotainment channel, allowed them to rent an office in North Hollywood and hire 10 full-time employees.
Along the way, the Fine Brothers experienced none of the meddling that network TV executives are famous for. Instead, YouTube provided them with an increasingly robust platform on which to distribute their programming and an increasingly large potential audience to tap.
YouTube's hands-off approach means there are terabytes of tedious programming on the site. But it is also what has made YouTube so innovative, a spawning ground for concepts that no network programming executive on earth would have ever green-lit.
Take Food Wishes, a cooking series that never shows host John Mitzewich's face. Instead, the camera stays focused on his hands for the duration of each episode, as he methodically shows every step it takes to make a miso-glazed skirt steak or Israeli couscous and cheese. Or how about Michelle Phan, a Florida-based "beauty guru" whose videos on how to achieve a "hippie princess" look or use kitty litter to make a facial mask have been viewed nearly 700 million times in the five years that she's been posting them?
The videos that Mitzewich and Phan produce may be substantially shorter than your average TV show, but they're far more comprehensive and definitely not designed for limited attention spans. While traditional food shows tend to emphasize the chef's personality at least as much as the cooking, and traditional makeover shows never spend more than a minute or two documenting how a small arsenal of makeup can transform an exhausted middle-aged marketing manager into a vibrant supermodel, YouTubers like Mitzewich and Phan aim to instruct as much as entertain. Watching their videos requires a kind of focus not necessary for TV but offers a payoff that TV doesn't deliver. YouTube has yet to become an official degree-granting institution, but if you want a Ph.D.-caliber education in how to achieve everything from a "cyber gothic anime" look to "candy cane eyes," just watch 50 or so of Phan's 200-plus videos.
What characterizes YouTube most in 2013 is not how it is making the vast wasteland of TV even vaster but how it is making it smarter. Even a broad-strokes comedy like MyMusic plays out in complex ways. While the hub of the Fine Brothers' MyMusic channel is a sitcom about people who create entertainment media for a living, à la 30 Rock or The Larry Sanders Show, the channel also features the programming these fictional characters create as standalone episodes. So you can watch them interview real bands and deliver real music news, and you can follow them on social media as well.
"Every character has a Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest account," says Benny Fine. "We even have things hidden on LinkedIn and a character who does Yelp reviews. It's a very deep, immersive reality. Viewers can write to the characters, and nine times out of 10, they will write you back."
Investing in creators like the Fine Brothers has paid off in a big way. In August 2010, according to the audience measurement firm Comscore, the average visitor to Google's sites watched 269.5 minutes of video, primarily on YouTube. By 2012 the average Google visitor's monthly video habit had grown to 443 minutes.
YouTube continues to claim a greater and greater share of our attention—not just through videos of women doing yoga in miniscule bikinis but also through introductory Latin lessons and other fare that taps our desire for depth and immersive engagement. In 2005, this was a plot twist few observers saw coming.