Google and TV: Playing to Win

I checked out YouTube’s new Movies section fully expecting to be disappointed, because so far I’ve found almost every attempt at premium video online to be lacking in one way or another.

Well, I wasn’t. It only took about two seconds to see that YouTube Movies passes the only test that really matters: does it have up-to-date stuff I want to watch?

“The Change-Up,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Bridesmaids,” and lots more of the latest releases are all available. By the way, they’re renting for $0.99, which is no doubt a short-term promotion, but still a great deal. The selection isn’t as comprehensive as Netflix. Nonetheless, YouTube running the newest, most popular rentals available anywhere sends an immediate signal to anyone that visits the site that it’s for real.

In the broader context of Google’s recent and ongoing moves, my visit to YouTube Movies clarified something I’ve been thinking for a while: when it comes to TV (by which I mean professionally-produced, long-form video content in general), Google is playing to win.

Apologies for a lazy sports analogy, but think about how many times you’ve watched a game where one team is playing to win (they’re loose, confident, and aggressive) and the other is playing not to lose (they’re tight, scared, and conservative).

Doesn’t the team that’s playing to win always come out on top?

Google is clearly the loose, confident aggressor in the battle for the future of TV, coming at the business from every possible angle:

  • Building the device itself, now on the version 2.0 of Google TV
  • Experimenting with managing the infrastructure, building out an ultra high-speed broadband network in Kansas City
  • Spearheading the development of new, TV-like content to run on YouTube, in addition to the YouTube Movies content

You can poke holes in any one of these efforts, but the point is not that they’re perfect. The point is that Google is purposefully moving forward.

In contrast to the entrenched interests (television networks and cable operators), who are playing not to lose.

Granted, they have a lot to lose, and can’t be faulted for trying to protect valuable, legacy businesses. But their basic posture has been to dig in and keep things as static as possible. The biggest news from the old guard has been TV Everywhere, which at the end of the day is simply giving people the right to watch content they’re already paying for over bandwidth they’re already paying for.

Google’s strategy is an attempt to make the television business as we know it much less relevant by sparking the creation of a viable web-first alternative.

As an industry (and maybe even as a culture), we’ve been operating with the assumption that a great show can’t exist unless a network produces it. Which suddenly seems like a really silly assumption.

It seems inevitable that in the next couple of years large audiences will turn on their connected TVs, open the YouTube app, and watch professionally-produced programming just as good as what exists on the networks.

How many great first-to-web shows need to be created before the influence of the networks is significantly eroded? Ten? Twenty? And why is it that this can’t happen?

Now for sure, the game Google is playing is a long-term one, with a five to 10 year horizon.

The object of the game is to wean the public from its reliance on traditional networks as the only legitimate sources of video content. Google doesn’t need to produce or own the new web programming to come out on top; it succeeds to the degree that the influence of the networks is diminished.

YouTube Movies and the new YouTube content channels are just the first moves in the game. Google is essentially creating a proof of concept that other producers can follow, demonstrating that “TV” no longer has to mean “stuff made by a traditional network or made available through a cable subscription.”

It’s a game about creating the future, not preventing it.

And it’s a game Google is playing to win.


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