They never caught Kony. PSY is giving up on "Gangnam Style." The Innocence of Muslims has countries banning YouTube at this very moment. Google's big-money play to create content channels kind of flopped. And yet after another year of big ups, a few downs, and the same old viral hits, YouTube is still the undisputed king of Internet video. Now, with Hulu and Netflix bouncing back — and Apple rumored to be entering the streaming content game like never before — can Google keep you surfing long enough to transform YouTube without breaking it?
When YouTube released its annual list of its top 10 most watched videos last week, PSY's "Gangnam Style" was, to nobody's surprise, on top — it is the most popular clip in YouTube's eight-year history, after all. And the celebratory mashup was telling:
"Gangnam Style," you will notice is all of four minutes and a few seconds of easy-to-clone pop-music-video goodness — just like Rebecca Black's "Black Friday" in 2011 and the Bed Intruder Song the year before that. The rest of 2012's top 10 looks familiar, too: "Call Me Maybe" parodies, a cover of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," even the Obama-Romney rap battle. YouTube, it would appear, is still very good at distributing the mainstream media's top quick hits for remixes and remakes.
Except that wasn't the plan for 2012. Google had set out to prove that YouTube could be a kind of cable box for web-original programming, and it funded a number of video makers — from the basements of California to the skyscrapers of New York — in filling these new vertical "channels." Whether that strategy worked ... well, it may be too soon to tell. Of the top 10, only three cracked the five-minute mark, including the phenomenon that was "Kony 2012." And while YouTube has been seeking a more long-tail approach to sucking up your time with fewer one-and-done hits than watch-and-return subscriptions, the success of longer videos may mean people are willing to spend more time on the site. As of June, the average YouTube user spent 15 minutes on the site every day, per The New Yorker's John Seabrook — a lot, to be sure, but not when you're trying, eventually, to replace television.
Either unwilling to secure loads of content from the big Hollywood studios or too busy policing it, YouTube let Hulu and Netflix sit in the boardrooms while it focused on the basement: investing in 100 original content hubs, Google thought, would draw loyal eyeballs ripe for return visits — and advertising. YouTube added 50 more channels in October and then, come November, abruptly stopped financing 96 of them, or 60 percent of its original programming. "There are not any successes you can point to and say, this happened because of Google’s investment," James L. McQuivey, who studies digital video and television at Forrester, told The New York Times's Claire Cain Miller.
Not that Google is giving up. A design facelift in December emphasized channels more than ever: if you watch a channel, you see that channel's new content when you return — not the same old PSY video. "Part of the goal is to start using YouTube just when you have 10 minutes to kill and you're bored," a YouTube product director told Miller this month, "rather than waiting for someone to send you a link to a video or when you have a search in mind." Now, knowing what doesn't work and what kind of works, YouTube will just become more focused: Music still draws eyeballs; so do channels like Time Warner Sound, which streams music videos; and so can the longer stuff. Cooking shows? Not so much. Ditto with content related to health and fitness.
What remains clear is that YouTube's relevancy is as healthy as ever, for bad and good. The Innocence of Muslims video showed how one video can lead to actual revolution, both political and technological — Pakistan just reinstated a ban on the entire service in the continuing flap over the video. And YouTube is still the place people go to waste time, one way or the other. Now they'll just have to keep spending, and learning, as Google tries to answer the same question as many other tech giants in 2013: How do you actually make money off Internet TV? YouTube will never be the place to watch your favorite cable show, and even Apple might not be able to twist enough arms at the cable companies for its long rumored Apple TV redux. So the answer for YouTube might not be so much in giving you more of what it's already good at so much as helping you find a few new addictions. No "Gangnam Style" allowed.