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Robert X. CringelyBack to OpinionRobert X. Cringely

Desi Arnaz in the YouTube era

YouTube, the Internet video download service owned by Google, recently reported that its users are downloading and viewing in excess of 2 billion videos per day, making the number of YouTube eyeballs for the first time greater than the number of eyeballs watching all the commercial television networks put together. Is this the triumph of bad Beyonce imitators and cat people or the demise of television as we have always known it?


If ever there were an example of apples and kumquats, this is it. TV comes in 30- and 60-minute chunks while the average YouTube video is just over three minutes long. So they DO have more eyeballs, just their shows are very short. In terms of eyeball-hours — which ought to count a lot more — YouTube still has a long way to go. YouTube doesn’t really cut it yet financially, either, with only a few hundred million in sales compared to the $20+ billion commercial TV industry.

And while there are some TV shows that rely in part on YouTube-type content to amuse us, traditional TV clips are by far the more important source of YouTube content. Where would YouTube be, in fact, without “The Daily Show” or “Letterman”? A lot less well-off.

All this really means, in fact, is that YouTube is here to stay. It isn’t a fad but a phenomenon — one that definitely IS having an impact on network viewership. But it would be going WAY too far to suggest that the success of YouTube means the death of television.

Web surfing was supposed to mean that, too, remember? So were video games, just as television in turn was supposed to have meant the death of feature films.

What we have is a population that is ever more connected and comfortable with technology becoming an audience that is ever more stratified. There are more electronic choices every year for how we can spend our time. Last year’s HD is this year’s 3D, and YouTube, too, is in that mix.

But YouTube, no matter how successful it becomes, will never create a media experience like the last episode of M*A*S*H.

Weep not for the sitcom.

Marshall McLuhan said almost 50 years ago that obsolete communication media tend to survive as art forms. So just as people still print fine books on Guttenberg-type presses, the three-camera sitcom as invented by Desi Arnaz will live on, too, at my house and I suspect at yours. Though we might be watching it on YouTube. In those damned 10-minute chunks.


  • Mark

    In following the internet versus broadcast/cable/traditional TV arguments, I am reminded of the “Bring Out Your Dead” scene in Monty Python & The Holy Grail…tech and media experts, including many at the FCC, are telling us that TV will be “stone dead in a moment” while the reality of it all is that TV is doing fine. And it will be so long as the content worth watching is there and keeping our attention beyond the 10-minute attention span. This article nails the issue totally.

  • Cineman

    YouTube is no more the end of television than photography was that of painting. Much like photography, all YouTube does is make a wonderful tool for self-expresion accessible to most. And much like painting, TV too will find new ways to get our attention — hopefully away from Reality TV. Competition is healthy, even in the arts, as long as we meet it, match it and/or beat it with creativity.