YouTube's answer to cable is here, and we tried it

When I watched YouTube execs unveil the new YouTube TV service at a flashy press conference here a few weeks ago, I was skeptical.

How were young people, the folks who don’t pay for cable, going to be convinced to fork over $35 monthly to watch network TV, some cable and sports on YouTube?

Furthermore, for the ones who might be interested, would they put up with the absence of youth-oriented cable channels like MTV, Comedy Central and Adult Swim?

I still think YouTube has a major challenge ahead. But after a short test drive of YouTube TV, which launches today in select cities, I’m also quite impressed.

The service, which features shows from the major TV broadcast networks and select cable offerings, looks fabulous on the phone, which is where I saw it previewed, more like Netflix than Comcast, which is a good thing. (YouTube TV is also available for viewing on tablets and desktop computers, and on TVs via the $35 Google Chromecast dongle.)

After years of slogging through pages and pages of boring online text-based program guides looking for something—anything—to watch, YouTube’s guide is, like the video network, very visual, contemporary and inviting.

Click it open to see what’s on, and you get thumbnails and descriptions of the nearly 50 channels being offered. (This is an increase from the original 40 announced, which didn't include AMC, but now does.) As a YouTube user, the Google-owned network knows more about you than your family, i.e., what you like to watch, so like Netflix and Hulu and other online programming services, what you see displayed are YouTube’s take on your interests.

News junkie? You’ll find MSNBC and other news channels. Sports fan? Then it’s all about ESPN and local sports.

YouTube’s offering joins the so-called “skinny bundle” movement, offering fewer channels for less money. Dish Network’s Sling TV and AT&T’s DirecTV are the leaders here, with just under 2 million combined subscribers, says James McQuivey, an analyst with Forrester Research.

He thinks YouTube is in the driver’s seat to win the race for the “cord nevers,” the folks who never would have considered subscribing, based on heft. With 1 billion monthly visitors to YouTube, “it’s just so much bigger than the others. They already have you.”

It’s not that young people don’t want to pay for TV, says Christian Oestlien, a YouTube product manager. “It’s just that they wouldn’t be willing to pay for the TV experience that has existed to date. It’s an experience that hasn’t evolved in the last 25-30 years and hasn’t kept up with the Internet or mobile.”

Young people subscribe to Spotify, Netflix and other services, he notes, so there’s no reason that if TV is presented to young people in way they understand, that they wouldn’t buy.

One feature YouTube heavily touts is its DVR service, offering to record as many shows as you can click on, with no storage limits or expiration dates.

Open up YouTubeTV, and you’ll see the current live offerings from the 40 channels, and go to a specific show page, and depending upon the program, you’ll see at least five episodes available for viewing. So do we really need to “tape” shows? (Yes, because if you’re slow to view, this will ensure you’ll have them available when you’re ready to watch.)

Advertising alert: unlike YouTube's Red subscription service, which offers originals from homegrown YouTube stars and all YouTube programming ad-free, the separate YouTube TV service will be chock full of ads. However, the ads will all be sold by the TV networks—YouTube won't be placing its own ads during the shows yet. (The network has been in hot water with major advertisers about the YouTube algorithm's placement of their ads on or near video content from extremists, and many have halted campaigns on the network.)

Bottom line: I still think convincing young folks to part with over $400 yearly to watch TV from YouTube is going to be a big challenge for the company because that crowd may be willing to pay $10 monthly for Netflix, but $35 is a much harder sell.

But creatively, YouTube has done a stellar job of showcasing TV in a new way, for the mobile generation. I look forward to spending more time with the app over the next weeks and will be back with a more in-depth review.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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