On March 26, The Simpsons viewers saw a clever twist on the long-running show's opening sequence: live action. But for many, it wasn't the first time they'd seen the bit. Nearly 4 million people had already watched the sequence during the previous three weeks, thanks to it virally spreading through video-sharing sites like YouTube.
BSkyB uploaded the clip in hopes of building some buzz for the show. It became a Web phenomenon, and has now been viewed nearly 5 million times on YouTube alone. It's an experience that suggests media companies may want to reconsider such video-sharing sites, which they've so far viewed mainly as threats, not partners.
To be sure, YouTube is hardly a latter-day Napster. Unlike the peer-to-peer network of old, YouTube does not allow files to be downloaded. And its purpose is not to trade mass media content. Instead, regular users create the vast majority of the 35,000 videos uploaded daily, which YouTube then allows other viewers to embed on their own Web pages.
Nonetheless, the site has drawn plenty of attention for the unauthorized posting of clips from Saturday Night Live, outtakes from Napoleon Dynamite and even full episodes of shows like South Park. This has given networks and media companies pause. In recent months, YouTube has received hundreds of requests to remove content from its site under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Now, some content companies are striking a balancing act, angling to harness the viral power of YouTube while simultaneously squelching its piracy potential—and hoping for a Simpsons-like payoff in Web buzz.
Unlike BSkyB's hands-off approach, media companies like MTV, Dimension Films and E! Networks are striking deals to get prominent placement on the site's home page. The attraction: An exploding audience of 9 million visitors in February, per Nielsen//NetRatings. The site is now the second-most visited video destination, increasing its traffic from just 500,000 visitors in October.
"We're finding for every call we're getting or the [DMCA] letters we receive, we're getting five calls from the marketing department about how to partner with YouTube," said Julie Supan, senior director of marketing at the San Mateo, Calif., company.
Early last month, YouTube began featuring "premium content providers," showing clips from MTV2 shows, movie trailers and music videos. For MTV, giving promotional clips was a no-brainer because it didn't have to pay for placement, said Tina Exarhos, evp of marketing for MTV and MTV2.
YouTube hopes to turn these informal arrangements into a business. Last week, E! Networks signed a deal to promote its series The Soup with a special section that solicits user videos and features clips from the show. E! is offering $25,000 for the user who submits the best clips. "If you sit back and ignore this, you're probably missing an opportunity and being a little naive," said Suzanne Kolb, evp of marketing and communications at E!.
Supan believes that media companies will eventually want to create their own communities on YouTube, gathering feedback and connecting fans. "The Internet is moving in this direction," she said. "They can either harness the power of this community or cling to traditional models. They have a choice to make."
For many media outlets, that choice is not easy. Sources at networks acknowledge that internal constituencies can view YouTube through very different lenses.
While MTV2 has used YouTube to promote programs like The Andy Milonakis Show and Wonder Showzen, Viacom sibling CBS recently had the site take down a clip of a CBS News story about an autistic high-school basketball player. The clip garnered over 1.5 million views in three days. The network declined comment.
NBC last month filed a DMCA request claiming the site had more than 500 pieces of NBC-owned content that should be taken down. Among the videos removed was "Lazy Sunday," the Saturday Night Live rap spoof that became a viral favorite thanks in large part to its unauthorized distribution on YouTube.
But NBC is hardly blind to the benefits of Web distribution. So rather than relying on sites like YouTube, NBC Universal is making content available through other channels, such as its own Web site and Apple's iTunes Music Store. "It's about finding that balance between protecting our copyrighted material but recognizing and meeting this demand to consume content in new ways," said Julie Summersgill, an NBC Universal representative.
Hoping to woo content companies, YouTube is taking steps to prevent copyrighted material from appearing on the site. While the volume of videos uploaded makes preemptive screening impossible, Supan said, the site last week instituted a 10-minute limit on videos, designed to keep full-length programming out. It is also working on an automated system for copyright holders to alert the site to violations. "It's a key message to the media companies," she said. "We want to complement their efforts and help them promote their materials."
YouTube is banking on its large audience bringing media companies around to partnerships rather than legal fights. After NBC forced YouTube to pull "Lazy Sunday," Dimension Films' agency Deep Focus saw an opportunity. It struck a deal with YouTube to stream the trailer of Scary Movie 4 earlier this month, getting 250,000 views in the first day and 1 million overall. "That's powerful stuff," said Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer. "That's needle-moving and significant.
"I see TV networks figuring out ways to take advantage of this," he added.
Indeed, media companies will have no choice but to embrace the Web's culture of media sharing, according to Steve Rubel, svp at Edelman, who advises clients on using social media. "Increasingly, if you're not talked about, you're not relevant," he said. "That's a hard thing to grapple with because it means giving up some control."