« Back to Posts

unnamed

YouTube TV Whacks at Pay-TV Wall With a Fatter, Smarter Skinny Bundle

Today’s YouTube announcement of the planned launch of YouTube TV is pretty big, if not world-changing, in my initial view.

Within “the next few months,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and other top brass said, they plan to launch the service in whatever U.S. markets where they can conclude carriage deals. Such deals are in place, it would appear, for the “owned & operated” major-market stations of the Big Four networks, but with more than 300 markets and plenty of independent broadcaster groups, covering the entire country will be a ground war of dealmaking in coming months.

The execs said they’re trying to solve several headaches of the current TV-watching world, and if they can pull it off, their solutions would be a nice improvement indeed.

The “skinny bundle” will cost $35/month to provide six different people their own accounts. Yes, many people share their Netflix or even (brave souls) their Amazon Prime account with various friends. YouTube execs said the six-account limit is designed to allow each person in a given household to have their own set of program recommendations, and their own well of recorded programs. Those are each an improvement on the situation in many cable households in an era of evolving viewer habits. Also, the execs acknowledged that they will have a difficult time policing what counts as “a household,” should you still want to share an account beyond your own four walls.

The skinny bundle of channels also will be relatively substantial, but with some significant holes.

It will include your local broadcast stations and about 40 other cable networks, including plenty of notable ones, such as USA, Fox News, MSNBC, FX and Oxygen.

There will be kids programming, from some of the Disney children’s channels and elsewhere. And there will be a fair amount of sports, including ESPN, Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN (plus whatever is on the broadcast channels), plus you can pay extra for regional sports networks such as the SEC Network and the Big Ten Network. You can also pay extra to get Showtime, just as on traditional cable.

That’s a nice array, but it’s important to note that missing from the list are any channels from Time Warner/Turner, Viacom or Scripps Howard. That means no TBS or TNT, no AMC or MTV, no Comedy Central or Nickelodeon, no CNN or HGTV.

Those are pretty big holes, but that’s also what skinny bundles are about: fewer channels for less money. How you feel about this particular bundle depends on how you feel about what’s missing as much as what’s there.

You also will have access to YouTube ad-supported content and the original programming from the separate YouTube Red subscription video-on-demand service. The execs were careful to say only the original Red programming would be available, 28 series and specials in 2016, with more to come this year. Other Red material would not be available as part of the deal.

One useful feature for families: YouTube TV will allow you to record and store as many shows as you want, for however long they run, on each account (you’ll have nine months to watch a recorded show), thanks to a bottomless cloud-based DVR for each person. That’ll be great for those times when the Super Bowl or Oscars runs for more than three hours, or your child would otherwise decide to record over your favorite sitcom.

The service will rely on Google’s formidable search, artificial-intelligence and machine-learning tools to suggest more content to you, and to prerecord new episodes of favorite programs. That too should be very useful, helping TV fans better navigate the sea of content out there.

Less clear is the service’s social component, including how you find out what your friends and influential others think are the hot shows now. During the follow-up Q&A session, Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan was vague about the social capabilities, which weren’t even mentioned during the initial presentation. Given Google’s long and tortured history of failed social-media initiatives, it’s perhaps not surprising. Sharing has never been a key part of the company DNA.

Mohan did say the social component would have functionality similar to the “Community” tab that YouTube began offering last year on the pages of some of its most popular creators, including the ability for fans to interact with creators. We’ll see how that plays out, whenever it’s available, but the lack of robust curation and sharing tools would hobble a major venue for discovery and engagement for many TV fans.

Also of use: YouTube TV will work “seamlessly” across mobile, tablet and Chromecast-enabled or -connected TVs. They talked as if it eventually would be available on platforms such as Roku and AppleTV (much as the YouTube app is already available), but said they’re focused on making the service work seamlessly on their own platforms for now. That’s reasonable, if a big limitation.

Executives also tried to demonstrate voice-activated search and control of the service through its separate Google Home digital assistant, but gave up after three failures. That capability would be useful whenever it is perfected.

There’s a lot here for a competitive price, certainly in comparison to the skinny bundles offered by AT&T’s DirecTV, Dish Network and Sony’s Playstation Vue Network.

The package isn’t designed to replace Amazon Prime and Netflix. Indeed, Chief Product Officer Robert Kincl said during the Q&A that he wouldn’t be dropping his subscriptions to those companies’ services. I would think of it instead as a potentially big part of the replacement suite of programming that many people will build as they decide to forgo a traditional fat bundle of cable channels.

That’s why this is also a big deal for the offerings of traditional cable, and for lesser channels that aren’t making anyone’s skinny bundle. I would consider this another blow to that long-standing pay-TV wall, which already was slowly crumbling thanks to cord-cutters, cord-nevers and the existing skinny bundle and SVOD offerings out there.

We shall see what happens next from those cablers and from the other skinny bundles, as well as any further additions YouTube comes up with by the time it finally launches. Interesting day. Stay tuned.

This article originally appeared on Medium.