YouTube vs. Current TV

| August 14, 2006

I’ve searched YouTube. I’ve watched YouTube. YouTube is my favorite “TV channel”. Believe me, Current TV is no YouTube. Let me explain.

Tom Bevan, over at the excellent Real Clear Politics, points to a San Francisco Chronicle article by Joe Garofoli that compares and constrast’s Al Gore’s CurrentTV channel with the YouTube website. Garofoli starts with:

Television insiders and pundits mocked Al Gore and Joel Hyatt a year ago when the pair introduced Current TV, their San Francisco-based cable and satellite channel. Even after critics saw that the ex-vice president and Democratic Party fundraiser weren’t crafting a left-wing network, few in the change-averse world of television could understand why anyone would tune into Current’s programming motif: three- to seven-minute videos created by emerging filmmakers, citizen journalists and the most rank of amateurs — the viewers themselves.

Soon after Current’s premiere, the Wall Street Journal described it this way: “Newsless, often clueless and usually dull, the new channel is a limp noodle.” Plus, Current was carried in only 17 million households, making it the equivalent of a one-stoplight town in the television universe. Big advertisers don’t start calling until a network can be seen in 40 million households.

Bevan (rightly) cites this paragraph as the nut of the article:

Current “caught the (viewer-created content) trend early, but it is kind of surfing by them,” said John Higgins, business editor at Broadcasting & Cable magazine, a trade publication for the television industry. “These guys (at Current) had all the right ideas and all the same machinery in place that YouTube did, but they didn’t quite do it. Lighting struck 10 feet to the left of them.

The problem is, Higgens’ statement is wrong in all the most important respects, as are the hopeful comments of others quoted in Garofilo’s article — which is why Current will never have the cache and popularity of YouTube. Here are at least three of the fundamental differences.

Narrowcast v. Widecast

I have Current TV because my TV signal provider (DirecTV) decided, for whatever reason, to carry it. Our lineup of DirecTV channels shifts slightly on a regular basis, and at some point in the last year, Current TV showed up. When I stumbled across it (and “stumbled” is a key word), I had no clue this was Al Gore’s famous venture into broadcasting. I watched it for a few minutes, trying to figure out the “theme” of the channel. No luck, other than it seemed to be lame and a bit desperate-to-be-hip-and-edgy. I pulled up the on-screen program guide, which simply said “Current” 24 hours a day. I tuned into it a few more times, remained equally unimpressed, and then went on-line to find out what this channel was — which is when I discovered it was GoreTV.

I have Current TV (for now, at least) because of some financial and/or editorial decision made at DirecTV HQ. I don’t have it in any of my hotel rooms, nor have I found it at the houses of friends/relatives where I’ve visited in the past several months. This is what I mean by “narrowcast”.

By contrast, I have YouTube pretty much anywhere I can get a ‘net connection. No net provider has to “decide” to carry YouTube (at least not yet; re the debate over “net neutrality“); if I’ve got net access, I’ve got YouTube. And I can watch YouTube on a number of devices, ranging from cell phones to large-screen TVs. This is what I mean by “widecast”.

Sequential vs. Random Access

I’m an old enough geek to have worked directly with various sequential-access data media (paper tape, reel-to-reel mag tapes, cassette tape, and so on). Sequential access means that you start at the, well, start of the media and read through until you (a) find what you were looking for or (b) hit the end of the media. Needless to say, it’s slow and inefficient compared to random access data media, such as floppy disks, hard disks, CD-ROMs, RAM, ROM, and so on, where you can go directly to a given location or address in the media and read what you want. Think VHS tape (sequential) vs. DVD (random), and you get the idea.

Current TV is sequential access, and the worst kind of sequential access: time-bound. To get to a particular video, I have to “sit through” (figuratively) everything up to that point. For example, with a VHS tape, I can at least fast forward until I find what I want. With Current TV, I can do so such thing; it plays out only in real time. The best I can do is to go to the Current TV web site, see if there’s anything I want, and then make plans to either watch it or record it at that precise moment in time.

YouTube, by contrast, is random access and time-free. All content is available directly and simultaneously. I do not have to wade (or wait) through content that does not interest me. And should I (in my search) bring up something that I thought I wanted to watch but that doesn’t interest me, I can halt it immediately. Furthermore, YouTube is time-free in that it can broadcast (serve up) thousands of hours of video every hour, limited mainly by the number of servers it has on line.

Editorial Selection vs. Post At Will (Mostly)

The editorial staff at Current TV has to decide what to broadcast and go through a rather complex series of production steps to convert user-created video to a TV signal in my living room. And since they can only fit 24 hours of broadcasting in a 24-hour period, they have to make constant decisions as to what to show. In so doing, they have to worry about regulartory issues, legal issues, political issues, and so on. They have various guidelines and constraints on what you should do in order to produce and submit vidoe. They may use viewer input to decide what video to air, but they ultimately control the signal.

The YouTube model, by contrast, is largely hands-off. They have a simple set of rules for what you can upload and ask you to assert lack of copyright violation. They have limited on length of video, largely because they found most video above a certain length was, indeed, copyrighted material. And they delete copyrighted or other illegal matter on request and notification. That’s about it. Users can vote on how they like video, but that’s after the fact; it doesn’t affect whether your video can be seen.

In Sum

YouTube’s biggest weakness is not the quality of the content — Sturgeon’s Revelation applies just as much to traditional TV as it does to YouTube videos — but the quality of the video itself. Both sound and image are tolerable at best and often are just plain wretched. On the other hand, pre-cable TV was like that for decades; the big advance in my childhood home was when my father installed a remote antenna turning system, so that he would no longer have to climb up on the roof to manually adjust the antenna for a given channel (“How does it look now?”). But I’ll still usually take content over presentation. (On the other hand, I’ll watch just about anything in High Definition.)

On our DirecTV satellite system, we have hundreds of channels, though fewer than we used to; we dropped all the movie channels when we discovered that we only watched one or two movies a month on them. Yet, outside of the local morning news/weather and occasional news channel updates, I seldom watch more than half a dozen shows and/or movies on TV each week. By contrast, I suspect there are few days that go by in which I don’t watch one or more YouTube videos, embedded in a blog or linked to in an e-mail I receive. In terms of total hours, I still watch more TV; in terms of discrete video productions, I watch more YouTube.

I don’t watch Current TV at all. ..bruce..

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Category: Information Technology, Main

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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