YouTube turns 5 and can't wait to grow up

LOS ANGELES — On a blustery spring day five years ago, Yakov Lapitzy pointed a video camera at his friend Jawed Karim standing in front of two elephants at the San Diego Zoo and hit the record button.

The resulting 19-second clip, titled “Me at the zoo,” was not a cinematic masterpiece, with Karim remarking on the pachyderm’s “really, really long trunks.”

But as the first video uploaded to YouTube, it played a pivotal role in fundamentally altering how people consumed media and helped usher in a golden era of the 60-second video.

“Prior to YouTube, there was no way people would watch anything that was 30 or 60 seconds,” said Paul Levinson, a professor of media and communication studies at Fordham University and author of the book “New New Media.” ”On TV, the shortest show was 30 minutes.”

Five years after Karim’s 19 seconds of digital immortality hit the Web and rocked the world of television, YouTube is coming full circle. The king of Internet video is embarking on a mission to become nothing less than the world’s TV.

The average YouTube viewer sticks around for about 15 minutes a day, while TV ensnares people for five hours daily. So the San Bruno, Calif., company is experimenting with ways to keep people on its site longer.

To close the gap with television, YouTube is adding full-length movies, two-hour concerts and live sporting events — some in high-definition and even stereoscopic 3-D — to its mix of snack-sized videos. It’s putting an emphasis on more polished videos from independent movie producers, major record labels and even Hollywood studios with whom YouTube has had a prickly relationship.

As much as YouTube went out of its way in the beginning to be the antithesis of television, in the end, it may become more like the boob tube.

“The day is coming when people won’t think of online video as being separate from TV,” said Shishir Mehrotra, who runs YouTube’s advertising programs as director of product management. “The lines are blurring in both directions. From the viewer’s perspective, there are many ways to watch content on their TV, and TV content on the Internet.”

That was not the idea in 2005 when YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Karim stitched the company together in an office above a pizzeria in San Mateo, Calif. The goal was to create a site that would make it easy for average people to share their homemade videos.

By July 2006, the company announced that 65,000 videos a day were being uploaded to its site. It wasn’t long before YouTube got noticed by a few big corporate fish. One was Google, which agreed in October 2006 to acquire YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock, even though there was nary a profit in sight.

YouTube also caught the eye of Viacom Inc. The media behemoth sued YouTube and its new corporate parent in March 2007 for $1 billion, alleging that YouTube had violated its copyrights when its users uploaded pirated videos of Viacom’s TV shows, including episodes of “South Park.” Google claimed that Viacom employees had uploaded many of those clips to market their shows to millions of YouTube users.

The case, which continues to wend its way through federal courts, in many ways encapsulates Hollywood’s ambivalent relationship with Silicon Valley — even as both increasingly rely on the other to capture a generation of viewers who are as likely to reach for their computer mouse as they would their TV remote in search of something to watch.

“The relationship isn’t completely repaired as long as the Viacom lawsuit is unresolved, but they’ve come a long way,” said Will Richmond, an online video analyst with VideoNuze in Boston. “Hollywood recognizes the juggernaut that YouTube is.”

Part of YouTube’s power is that it has become the first place many Web surfers turn to find video, making it the second most popular search engine after its parent, Google. YouTube now streams 2 billion video views a day, more than the number of videos served up by three major broadcasters combined.

Whether YouTube has parlayed those eyeballs into profit is another matter. Google has declined to break out YouTube’s financial performance from its overall earnings and has not said whether its subsidiary is profitable.

To improve its margins, YouTube is cultivating more professionally produced videos, which tend to keep people around longer than homemade cat videos, Richmond said.

“YouTube has recognized that a large portion of user-generated content is not monetizable,” Richmond said, “so they’ve made a huge effort to make more premium content available.”

A prime example is “Striker,” a Bollywood thriller that debuted on YouTube in January on the same day it was released in theaters. Its producers had the film blocked in India and Pakistan, made it available for rent for $3.99 on YouTube in the U.S., and let the rest of the world watch it for free, supported by advertising. YouTube served up more than 954,300 views of the movie but declined to say how many were paid rentals.

YouTube hasn’t landed any Hollywood blockbusters. But the company, which announced its video-rental program at January’s Sundance Festival, acknowledged that its platform is more appropriate for independent filmmakers struggling to get distribution from traditional media channels.

That was exactly what Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin wanted when she turned to YouTube to launch a reality show series about a deaf family.

“I didn’t want to wait for the networks to warm up to the idea of whether the show would be a hit or not with audiences,” Matlin said. “So I decided to put it out there on my own terms. YouTube is akin to having my own (TV) network.”

YouTube hasn’t abandoned short-form amateur video. Its users upload 24 hours of video every minute, much of which falls into the “cat on a skateboard” variety. One of those was a clip David DeVore took of his 7-year-old son, also named David, after a dental appointment. Groggy from the anesthesia, his son asks, “Is this real life?” Uploaded to YouTube on Jan. 30, 2009, the video has garnered more than 59 million views and sparked a profusion of woozy-kid videos.

Thanks in part to a program in which YouTube shares its advertising revenue with creators of the site’s more popular videos, DeVore, who lives in Lake Mary, Fla., estimated his family has earned more than $125,000 from the video, which still gets more than 100,000 views a day.

“However short or long it lasts, it’s opened up experiences that we would never otherwise have,” DeVore said.

Compelling as it may be, “David After Dentist” can keep a viewer’s attention for only the two minutes it takes to watch the clip. On average, visitors will watch a handful of other videos, then click off to another site.

YouTube is working on ways to make the site more of a “lean-back” experience. It’s working on better ways to suggest similar videos that would entice a viewer to linger.

One experiment, which YouTube calls “Disco,” tries to match a person’s taste with video recommendations. Amazon uses a similar method to suggest items to its shoppers, based on items they’ve already purchased.

“We want to make it easy for you to cut through this gigantic set of videos and find exactly what you want to watch,” said Hunter Walk, director of product at YouTube.

But thanks to the revolution that YouTube kicked off five years ago, what viewers want to watch is a lot more diverse than it was, said Henry Jenkins, professor of journalism, communications and cinema at USC.

“YouTube has become a lot of things at once,” Jenkins said. “It’s become the first place people turn to for both amateur and professional media, the central portal for all media.”

Alex Pham/Los Angeles Times