On Wednesday, Google took the wraps off what is one of the biggest evolutionary steps for YouTube since it was acquired 10 years ago. It introduced YouTube Red, a subscription version of the video site that comes without ads and lets users download videos for $10 a month.
In a nutshell, Google wants to compete with Netflix—and Hulu and HBO Go and Comcast’s Watchable—as well as Spotify and Apple Music and Pandora, all at the same time. But is this even possible?
There’s a lot to unpack in the announcement, so for simplicity’s sake, it’s probably easiest to break the new service down into the Netflix-like part and the Spotify-like music streaming part. On the video side, subscribers to YouTube Red will be able to watch millions of videos on YouTube without having to sit through advertising. They will be able to save videos to watch them offline, and listen to them in the background while using other apps.
In addition, starting next year Google (GOOG) is going to be adding new, more TV-style content from its content partners and channels that will only be available to Red subscribers. This ranges from a video-game inspired show with YouTube’s biggest star, PewDiePie, to a feature-length comedy series from the creators of Rooster Teeth, a popular YouTube content company.
Like Netflix, but with PewDiePie
If you run down the list of shows that YouTube has planned, it’s not exactly a Netflix-style selection of traditional hits. For example, it doesn’t have anything that’s likely to compete with Orange Is The New Black, or House of Cards, or the new series Narcos.
Instead, what YouTube Red has is shows that are built around existing YouTube stars like PewDiePie and the Fine Brothers. If you don’t spend a lot of time on YouTube or are over a certain age, you probably have no idea who any of those people are, which doesn’t really matter because you aren’t the target market. For YouTubers, PewDiePie is arguably as big as Drake is for rap or hip-hop fans.
The big question is whether that target market (or their parents) wants to pay $10 a month for access to those types of shows. Much of what YouTube has built so far is based on short clips that are the video equivalent of potato chips or chewing gum.
Can those audiences be convinced to not only watch longer, TV-style features but pay for them? That’s the multibillion-dollar question. If they can, and if YouTube can build a relationship with those younger viewers that continues as they grow older and want more mature content, then YouTube Red could become very powerful indeed.
Play Music and YouTube Music
On the music side of the equation, YouTube Red bundles Google Play Music—the company’s existing Apple Music or Spotify equivalent—so that if you pay for one, you automatically get access to the other. For just $10, that will probably be a fairly compelling offer for many music fans.
It wouldn’t be a Google service if it wasn’t just a little confusing, however, so the company announced another music offering as well—called YouTube Music—that it said is coming soon. At first I thought one would replace or absorb the other, but Google confirmed there will be two standalone services: Play Music and YouTube Music.
From the sounds of it, Play Music will continue to be the more obviously Spotify-like service, with a range of themed channels, recommendations based on your history, and the ability to upload songs from your library to the cloud.
YouTube Music, on the other hand, will be an app that lets you use YouTube videos as a back-end for music listening—something that large numbers of younger users already do, by searching videos and then watching or listening to related videos suggested by Google. Presumably the new app/service will add features like playlists and so on that make it a somewhat less random or haphazard process.
Confusing, but ambitious
Some beta users have had access to something similar to YouTube Music, a trial service known as YouTube Music Key, which provided background video play, downloads and no advertising. That has stopped accepting new users.
So will either or both of these services provide much competition for Spotify, Apple Music (AAPL), etc.? Play Music to some extent already does, although it’s difficult to determine how successful it has been because Google doesn’t release numbers for it. But the fact that it gets bundled for free with YouTube Red might make it more compelling for plenty of people who didn’t even realize it existed.
YouTube Music feels more like the video side of YouTube Red: A way to maximize—and potentially a better way to monetize—the existing behavior of users who already use YouTube for music. Whether it will be able to pull in new users is a big question mark.
As with many things Google does, YouTube Red is simultaneously ambitious, somewhat confusing and impressive at the same time. It would have been quite easy for the company to just sit back and count the billions in advertising revenue that flow in from YouTube, but it clearly wants to find out where the service fits in the emerging world of mobile entertainment, and streaming subscription services, and that’s admirable. But it could be biting off a lot more than even it is able to chew at once.