Streaming services are coming to YouTube. The company is introducing a new feature called Primetime Channels that brings shows and movies from more than 30 services directly to the YouTube interface. It’s a big bet for YouTube that it could be the cable bundle of the future and its unparalleled audience will make streaming services buy the idea.
YouTube has signed up 35 partners for the launch, from well-known streaming services such as Paramount Plus and Epix to niche offerings such as The Great Courses and Magnolia Selects. (Another service, NBA League Pass, is coming soon.) Each service will essentially work like any other YouTube channel, with a curated homepage and a ton of videos. Those videos appear in the Movies & TV section of the YouTube app, as well as in search results, recommendations, and elsewhere on the platform. You can leave a comment and like or dislike the video – the only thing missing is the number of views.
The movies and shows really only have one distinguishing feature: a neon green button that says “Watch Now” if it’s from a service you’re subscribed to or “Pay to Watch” if you’re not signed in.
It’s all extremely YouTube-esque, like YouTube just turned a bunch of movie studio executives into creators — and that’s exactly the idea. For a number of reasons. For starters, “It’s frustrating having to jump from app to app to manage your subscription for different apps,” said Erin Teague, director of sports, movies and shows at YouTube and leader of the Primetime Channels project. This Is A Rule You Hear From Many Tech Executives – Streaming is Too Complicated ! We can fix it! — but YouTube’s case is stronger than most. Two billion people already use the service every month, most already have a Google account, many have already linked their credit card and YouTube can simplify everything else.
It also fits perfectly with YouTube, where people already spend time watching trailers, recaps, and all sorts of other content about their favorite shows and movies. “You watch trailers on YouTube and leave YouTube to start all over again on the streaming service,” Teague says. “So we were like, ‘What would happen if we just collapsed that experience and made it easy to watch all this content in one place?'”
The new YouTube experience doesn’t praise expensive shows and movies above regular YouTube creators
All of this also includes a bold statement about the future of entertainment. The new YouTube experience won’t praise expensive shows and movies above regular YouTube creators, Teague says — it won’t rank them first in search results or promote them more aggressively in recommendations. Teague says she sees the types of content differently, referring to “official content” and “shoulder content” to describe the difference between the shows themselves and things about the shows, but says she doesn’t think it makes sense to prioritize them. or the other except for individual users.
YouTube has been building a service like Primetime Channels for a long time. The company has long known that “official content” was the platform’s biggest hole and that there was no point in offering a thousand videos with detailed breakdowns of every transaction made by the Billions crew, but not the episodes themselves.
The problem was Hollywood, which was largely disinterested in the idea of YouTube — companies preferred to build their own destinations rather than let another platform own the user experience. YouTube tried to partner with services, then tried to create its own content, then built a brand new cable replacement service into YouTube TV. Now, with Primetime Channels, it seems to be getting what it always wanted.
So what has changed? In recent years, as the streaming wars have become hotter and more competitive, services big and small alike have had to look for new ways to gain subscribers. It’s hard to be precious about the user experience when you’re bleeding users. Amazon and Apple have long offered ways to subscribe to streaming services through your existing account, and Walmart, Verizon, and others are joining in too. YouTube’s pitch is pretty much the same as any of the other companies, plus the whole “we’re the most popular video platform on the web and everyone comes here to watch stuff on their TV” stuff. “What we’re finding is that what partners really want is distribution,” Teague says. “They want the content to work and they want their content to reach the users who are interested in it.”
However, this requires a tricky balancing act. It makes sense that YouTube would choose to integrate shows and movies as just another type of content, but it risks a crappy user experience. Nobody wants to search “South Park” and then wade through a series of best-of clips and interviews with the creators to get to the show and movies. (Remember when Spotify put karaoke versions of songs at the top of search results?) But if YouTube gets all of its official content to the top, it risks shoving other creators too far down the page. And when you’re done with an episode, should you get the next episode or fun creator videos about the one you just watched? As with YouTube Music, integrating official content and content from creators is YouTube’s most enticing opportunity. It’s also incredibly hard to get right.
The streaming industry’s general infrastructure also makes it difficult to create Primetime Channels – and YouTube certainly hasn’t finished the job yet. For example, you cannot yet register for a new service via the app; you have to scan a QR code or type a URL. And if you’re already subscribed to one of the Primetime Channels services, you can’t just log in through YouTube. You must cancel and register again. If you’ve signed up for services through YouTube TV, they’ll carry over, and Teague says you can use your YouTube login to sign in to other apps through the TV Everywhere system. But it’s all still too complicated.
Managing streaming accounts and apps is tricky – and YouTube hasn’t mastered it yet
It’s also a bit confusing from YouTube’s own perspective. YouTube has touted YouTube TV as the bundle of the future, and head of product Christian Oestlien told me earlier this year that he has identical ambitions to re-bundle the streaming services. So why isn’t Primetime Channels a YouTube TV feature? When I ask Teague, she offers two answers – well, one and a half. One is that YouTube is global in a way that YouTube TV is not and that it sees a huge opportunity for Primetime channels outside the US, “where some companies haven’t reached the scale.” Half seems to be that YouTube and YouTube TV are different products with different teams, and in classic Google fashion they don’t seem to work very closely together. There’s also the unspoken other answer, which is that while YouTube TV is growing well, its 5 million users are barely a drop in the overall YouTube bucket.
YouTube’s distribution is likely to be a compelling hook for many streaming services. But Paramount Plus, which has been very open about using partnerships to quickly catch up with the giants, is the biggest name on the YouTube list so far. Can the company win over the big players, the Netflixs and Disney Pluses and HBO Maxes of the world? Teague says it will be difficult in the US “because everyone is already having a really good experience.”
The real opportunity lies globally, she says, especially in places where streaming infrastructure is difficult to build. “Building a streaming service that just works all the time, that can stream live content, on-demand content, that can recommend content in a way that is pleasant for users – it turns out to be a very difficult technical challenge.” Teague and YouTube are betting that more and more companies are happy to leave that challenge to YouTube and focus on making shows and movies that people are willing to pay for. Which, of course, would somehow make YouTube even more important to the future of entertainment.