YouTube Goes Hollywood

Report that the video site might start paying celebrities for content raises great expectations – and concerns

There won’t be any Oscars for YouTube videos this year, despite Roger Ebert’s best efforts. But the video site might soon be going Hollywood.

New York magazine’s Vulture site reports that YouTube is talking to agents about paying celebrities to start their own channels on the site. The stars would maintain ownership of the content, while YouTube would keep any ad revenue, according to Vulture.

The set-up could mark the start of a new media meld that raises great possibilities – along with concerns that YouTube, the people’s video site, could morph into an overly-commercial, virtual version of Tinseltown.

The arrangement, in theory, could bring artists more freedom, making them less beholden to TV and movie studio executive conceptions of what sells. They’d be forced to be more creative, given probably tight budgets and the confines of the relatively short-form videos Internet users have come to expect, whether viewing news reports, homemade YouTube pieces or comic shorts on Funny or Die.

YouTube, which gets 2 billion hits a day, would prove a powerful platform for the celebrities, particularly with the promotion and prime placement their channels almost certainly would get. The special channels also would help viewers wade their way through the site, which receives some 35 hours of uploads a minute.

Whether the new channels would hurt other media – or whether that matters at a time when the public is increasingly finding entertainment online – is up for debate. The cross-pollination might actually help promote movies and boost TV, as we’re already seeing with HBO’s version of “Funny or Die,” “Tosh.0” on Comedy Central and Hulu, where plenty of folks catch-up with shows from NBC, ABC, Fox and other outlets.

But would a YouTube filled with celebrity channels kill the DIY spirit that’s driven the site since it’s 2005 debut? The charm and genius of YouTube is that anybody has a shot at virtual fame, whether it’s a little boy whose baby brother chomped his finger or an aspiring filmmaker whose visually arresting video about New York City after the post-Christmas snowstorm got Ebert talking Oscar.

We realize that money needs to be made, but we’d be somewhat concerned about the potential invasiveness of the advertising attached to the celebrity channels. We’d also hope that the Google-owned site would constantly search for potential celebrity channel candidates among its ranks of unknown but talented uploaders.

While it’s unclear how all this might play out, we’re hopeful given previous YouTube efforts to enlist the hoi polloi to raise the quality of its content, through its art projects, virtual orchestra and “Life in a Day” movie.

For the uninitiated, “Life in a Day” is a 90-minute pastiche of some of the 80,000 videos of ordinary life scenes taped on July 24 and uploaded to YouTube. The movie recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is set for a commercial release this summer – making it eligible for next year’s Academy Awards.

As for whether YouTube becomes its own branch Hollywood, with all the benefits and drawbacks that entails, we’ll be watching.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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