Critic's Notebook: YouTube Red and Facebook Watch Are Not Going to Kill the TV Industry

Yes, they have enormous bank accounts and untold millions of viewers. What they don't have is experience, buy-in or history.
Photographed by Koury Angelo
YouTube executives are ready to take on Hollywood. Good luck with that.

You know all that industry hand-wringing about streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the impending arrival of Apple? Well, outside of Apple, those streaming services are part of the family now, so all that bi-coastal agita has nothing on how some people are fretting about a pair of hip distant cousins, YouTube and Facebook, and how they could completely change the television business.

The stress level there is Category 5 (or whatever "Let's panic over what the kids are doing because we don't have any real idea about it" is), and that worry only gains steam when everyone remembers that YouTube is Google Money adjacent and Facebook can topple democracies and Mark Zuckerberg prints money in the back shed when he's bored.

Yeah, let's ratchet that panic back about, oh, 90 percent.

YouTube and Facebook won't be any kind of threat to quality, scripted content. Nope. Not happening.

Hell, combined they won't even be nearly the worry everyone seems to think, even for unscripted content. Go turn a hose on and let it run into the ocean. Call when it makes a difference. Or when you go broke. Or right before you die from boredom. That's what making more unscripted content does to the existing industry.

Look, YouTube Red, the television content arm, and YouTube TV, the subscription service, will make some money. They'll lure advertisers. So will Facebook Watch, the TV arm of Facebook, aka "What are my college friends up to, here's a cat photo and here's where we went on vacation."

It's not hard for either company to make money. They are aces, transactionally speaking. That is not the hard part.

All those sets of eyeballs linked to YouTube and Facebook that ignite the envy of greedy linear TV bean counters in Los Angeles and New York will, in some drastically diminished proportion to their total number, show up for what Red and Watch create.

For a few minutes.

And then show up again, for another few minutes.

If you want to think that's the birth of a revolution, go for it.

Will both of those entities, which are ramping up furiously as you read this, revolutionize the TV industry? Will they become players for Emmy hardware? Will they replace or even severely cut into the beams and rebar of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and, at some point, Apple?

Nope, nope and nope.

(Listen, people, there are no more "nopes" left. The allotment has been sorted. You see the trend here.)

YouTube will still be YouTube and Facebook will still be Facebook — monolithic entities with endless millions of users looking at, liking and friending what they watch, read or find temporarily amusing. Fundamentally that will not change, because Facebook and YouTube are already huge. They are established businesses. They have already theoretically "cut into" the available TV audience (a theory you should buy into only partially, and then with asterisks). They have already kept your teenagers from watching linear television (another theory you should believe, albeit fractionally).

But their jumping into the content business — even further, to the main point — does not guarantee success just because they have available eyeballs. And don't start with Twitter TV, either — just don't; shhhhh.

There are millions of televisions sitting turned off or tuned to someone else's program, across the country. Having available eyeballs (or friends, or followers) means nothing if you don't have the content those specific eyeballs, friends and followers want. As much as the recent presidential election makes you think we're a nation of sheep, it's not entirely, predictably so.

Using Facebook doesn't mean people will watch TV on Facebook. Watching YouTube videos doesn't mean people will pay to watch TV on YouTube or pay to subscribe to it, either. There are no analytics, no long-running sample size that indicates people will watch anything on either platform that is fundamentally different than what they choose to watch there now — up to and including pricey scripted fare. Oh, executives at both companies, on the newly minted TV teams, have cinematic fever dreams where existing users want something totally different in the first place and are willing to shell out for it in the second.

It's nice to dream.

And far be it from the tech industry to overestimate and invest in a market that doesn't specifically exist but will no doubt quadruple in size within weeks of launch if you just throw money at it.

Creating a library of scripted series is not like clicking on Facebook Live. YouTube Red and YouTube TV, if they are even keen to sustain those splinter feeds beyond one or five more years, will have variations on what's already free on YouTube. To get the latter to be worth looking at much less subscribe to, YouTube will need to get big-name stars in front of the camera, with scripts that don't make them look stupid and episodic budgets that are not embarrassing. And then surround those big-name stars with lots of other big-name stars on other shows with great writing and quality directing, all done with competitive budgets.

Has that happened? No. Is there a worry from agents and managers that putting a big-name star on YouTube or Facebook — neither with a proven track record of staying in the game and not upending the table when results don't materialize — will lead to embarrassment and career damage?

Yes, there is a worry.

And just because certain stars have gone to and made shows with minor cable channels or major internet-based platforms, you need to remember that cable is still a known entity (it's TV) and every major streaming service has, as its core interest, a desire to make multiple TV series, many of them of the prestige variety.

Is that what YouTube Red or Facebook Watch wants? Not evident yet. Has YouTube or Facebook pulled off any significant moves in that direction — "significant" meaning with non-YouTube stars, or talent which is notable — beyond something they did in the 1990s?

Dubious.

And don't be suckered into the "big-name" announcement that a certain star — Kerry Washington, for instance, producing a drama for Facebook Watch — is some kind of coup or sign of progress. Hell, every person with a bankable name and an idea from their agent or manager wants some of that YouTube and Facebook money — as a producer. Who wouldn't? If Washington stars in a Facebook Watch show, then send up a flare and someone monitoring the industry might care — provided a ton of other talent goes in front of the camera with her, on multiple shows.

I read with great interest last week's superb THR cover story from the magazine's Natalie Jarvey, who did excellent work interviewing the players and documenting the state of the current scene as YouTube and Facebook enter the fray. It's an absolutely fascinating read, not just from the dreams-on-sleeve quotes from players at the forefront, but also the doubt from certain quarters in the industry and, most importantly, the transparent absence of anyone creating art and taking a real risk, say with scripted stuff. A Demi Lovato documentary is really an ad for Demi Lovato. A Ryan Seacrest-hosted show about cover songs is just another unscripted series that puts a lot of money in Seacrest's pockets. There's nothing wrong with those. But there isn't a Stranger Things or Atlanta, Transparent or — obviously — a Game of Thrones anywhere in sight (or on the sites). And there isn't likely to be, if at all, for some time (is that what Facebook and YouTube users even want?). And let's say there ends up being one or two such shows — something that ends up being as good as, say, This Is Us or Black-ish. Can those be repeated, multiplied? Is there a commitment for the long-term? Is there a real business here, subscription-wise, that would challenge existing platforms or is this just a loss-leader fantasy?

If YouTube Red or Facebook Watch is going to make what amounts to unscripted basic cable fare, well, godspeed. Hopefully someone will send food to the back of the line you're in.

If YouTube Red and Facebook Watch want to create mediocre dramas that aren't discernibly different than broadcast networks, is that an achievement? And don't we have enough of that already? If they want to play in the scripted game without the necessary structure — people who know how to make and sustain television shows, multiple executives who can make that happen, nurture the creative process and redefine what is already an insanely competitive industry — then this push from two of the biggest online companies in the world will end up being more like a bunch of cute domain names that never went anywhere.

These are just a small assortment of the hurdles that lay ahead. So if you're inside the industry and fretting about what the monoliths will do, sleep a little easier and focus on more relevant and advanced worries right in front of your face.

This YouTube Red and Facebook Watch insurgency is not a movement. This is an inclination, a desire, to play in your sand box — oh, sorry, "disrupt" it.

When and if big stars and producers jump over and in front of the camera — not in twos or threes, but in droves — then you can start to worry. In this meantime, this is something else. This is not a thing.

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