YouTube’s Quest to Make TV Work Everywhere

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Neil Cormican has spent his career trying to fix the interface on your TV. Before he was the head of design at YouTube TV, Cormican worked on program guides, interactive systems, and web-based TV. Lots of ideas, always the same roadblock. “Everybody already watches TV,” he says. “So everybody has an opinion, and everything you do is always wrong.” To borrow a Gladwell-ism, just about everyone has put in their 10,000 hours flopped on the living room couch, aimlessly thumbing through channels. They know how to watch TV. And they’re not particularly willing to change.

A couple of years ago, when YouTube began to investigate what a marriage of live TV and its streaming service might look like, Cormican started spending lots of his time watching people watch TV. He figures he’s done so with upwards of 500 people. He’ll bring them into a lab or go to their home, and try to figure out what they like about the way TV works now. “If you Google search somebody watching TV on a Friday night, the stock photo has them doing this,” Cormican tells me, sitting up straight on the sofa inside a YouTube testing lab, pointing a remote at a Sony screen with exaggerated intent. That’s not real. More likely, Cormican found, they’re lying on the couch, arm draped over the edge, pounding on the up-down-left-right buttons on the remote in search of something to watch.

All this anthropological study—the television viewer in his natural habitat—helped Cormican start to solve the fundamental problem facing YouTube TV: how to make TV on the internet feel like, well, TV. Even as streaming services continue to rise, as millions trade their Comcast bill for a bunch of smaller ones from Netflix and HBO, no one’s figured out how to translate the whole experience. One part in particular remains elusive: that moment of flopping down on the couch and looking for something, anything, to watch.

When YouTube TV launched earlier this year, it was available only on smartphones. The decision was intentional, meant to clearly state that this was a different kind of service. Now, eight months later, the team has readied a new app for smart TVs, set-top boxes, and game consoles around the world. This one has a different job: to complete the vision. YouTube believes it has created the first great TV service for the internet, offering everything users want to watch in a seamless, ubiquitous way that feels natively internetty and comfortably couch-friendly. And it works with your remote.

The Best Thing On

One of the most important metrics for the YouTube TV team, product director Christian Oestlien tells me, is “time to watch.” Basically, when you open the app, Oestlien wants you to get into content as soon as possible. “If you have to scroll through the home feed, and get to the bottom and go to search, and find a detail page, and then jump in, we’ve failed at our job,” he says. In an ideal world, you’d open the app, and it would automatically put on what its algorithms already know you want to watch. “But humans don’t work that way,” Oestlien says, with a touch of lament in his voice. “They want some diversity of choice.”

Do they, though? After all, one of the best things about live TV, one of the moments of effortlessness YouTube TV and everyone else is trying to copy, is that when you turn on the TV, you get… the last channel you were watching. Not what you want? No problem, the guide’s one button away. When I point this out to Oestlien, he laughs. “Is that product feedback?” Then he and Cormican start brainstorming whether they could do that on the living room app, which can already display a guide overlaid on a show or movie. Maybe that should be the default view.

Either way, YouTube’s interested in live TV in part because of its ability to instantly give you something to watch. There’s something hard to replicate about the feeling of wading through dozens of channels, all playing something you can dive into without hesitation or comitment. “You keep going, going, going, and you find something,” Cormican says. “Then you watch that until you’re bored, and then you start again. This is what TV has that on-demand can never match.”

Everything about YouTube TV exists to make that even easier. Cormican rails against the walls of icons that face you when you open other streaming apps—he doesn’t name names, but anyone who’s ever experienced Netflix Paralysis knows the feeling. “People can’t make a decision on a piece of artwork,” Cormican says. He prefers the idea of Top 10 lists. “It just says, ‘we’ll give you the top 10, you just choose one of them.'” In YouTube TV’s case, it’s the shows on right now, or the games you might want to watch, or all the movies you’ve recorded so far. Live TV is nothing if not an endless list of things you might like, and while they might not all be perfect for you, sometimes all you need is something pretty good.

Some early versions of the YouTube TV app included a traditional-looking program guide, the horizontally scrolling spreadsheet of shows everyone understands. But after some user testing, the team decided the whole idea of a two-weeks-ahead guide doesn’t really make sense anymore, at least not on phones. Whether you’re watching Snapchat Discover, Instagram Stories, or your subscription queue on YouTube, the whole viewing experience revolves around what’s available, trending, new, right now. “We didn’t see anybody sitting on a bus, going through the guide,” Cormican says.

Instead, YouTube TV offers a vertical list of what’s on now, all the options in Tinder-like cards you can flip through to find what you want. Cormican sees it as the proper evolution to channel-surfing, made for the internet age. In the old way, he says, “it’s almost like the channels are stacked on top of each other, and you push a button and the next one comes and the next one comes. We thought, how can we take that navigation pattern and move it into mobile?” Cormican says it’s the thing about YouTube TV people keep coming back to.

YouTube TV is now six months old, has expanded to new markets across the US, and feels more stable than ever. It’s also had time to learn what users are actually doing in the app. “More than half of our watch time is coming from Chromecast,” Oestlien says. “On the weekends, people are casting upwards of four hours a day.” That’s pretty clear feedback: People may like the mobile-first approach, but they want to watch TV on their TV.

So now, YouTube TV is coming to your TV.

Screen Time

Okalo Ikhena, the leader of the YouTube TV living room app, grabs a remote off a table full of remotes. The lab we’re in, inside YouTube’s San Bruno offices, contains two TVs, several smart speakers, and just about every set-top box you can think of. (There’s even a Wii, for some reason.) Ikhena picks an Nvidia Shield TV, which runs Android TV and will be among the first devices to get the new YouTube TV app, and starts poking around.

The living room experience for YouTube TV looks much more like other TV experiences than the mobile app. That’s important, and intentional: the team decided early on that they had to make each experience feel right and native, not force some new idea about TV down everyone’s throat on every platform. So on your big screen, YouTube TV does in fact offer a full, horizontally scrolling program guide. Ikhena just hopes you’ll never need it. He’d rather you pick something from the “Top Picks For You” list atop the home screen, or from the “Continue Watching” one just below. He’s particularly excited about a menu that sits below whatever you’re watching, a running list of the four things you saw most recently across all services. Ikhena calls it “the Last button on steroids.”

Most of YouTube TV’s features mirro its competitors. You can learn more about the cast of a movie with a couple of clicks, sort by content type, and find shows in wacky sub-genres. Like everyone else, YouTube TV hopes to entice you with ultra-personalized recommendations. “No two people should experience the same TV,” Oestlien says. And since YouTube TV is YouTube, and YouTube is Google, it’s already great at search, and it’s going to get good at recommendations really fast. At first, Ikhena says, you’ll see a lot of live TV, but over time, as you watch stuff and build a library, you’ll hopefully see what you want no matter what it is.

The couch-potato experience still accounts for just one part of the YouTube TV universe. Oestlien says a few times that YouTube TV is an app, not a product. “We can be everywhere, and we will be everywhere,” he says. Everywhere that includes the latest DRM standards and can handle HTML 5, at least. Their vision for the future of TV is an awfully Google-y one: You should be able to find anything you want to watch, anywhere you are.

Wherever, Whenever

The funny thing about YouTube’s vision for the future of TV is that it sounds a lot like everyone else’s. The notion of “TV Everywhere” was coined by Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes in 2009, but many in tech have understood for much longer than someday users would be able to watch all the TV they want from anywhere on the planet. It’s not even a terribly complicated idea, really. It just holds that people watch video in lots of places outside their living room and away from the big screen, and that limiting content to a specific screen would no longer make sense.

Executing on TV Everywhere proved harder. Too many content providers flee anything that smells like cord-cutting, and even the big cable companies have made the process so convoluted that no one in their right mind could ever enter their password enough times to make it all work. Add in long-lasting and short-sighted rights deals, and just getting the future of TV started seems impossible.

In all that mess, YouTube saw an advantage: It’s YouTube. Not only does it host approximately four hundred bajillion years of content across every genre imaginable, it’s actually begun to replace linear television for a younger generation. They watch Pewdiepie instead of the NFL, Jake Paul over Vanderpump Rules. They don’t tune in for the 9PM hour, but whenever MKBHD goes live. Meanwhile YouTube’s investing in original content through YouTube Red, creating shows and movies that, let’s just say, wouldn’t fit on network TV. In so many ways, YouTube already helped redefine what it means to watch television.

Philosophically, YouTube TV leans hard into the idea that content is just content. Live broadcasts serve a unique need, but they’re no better or worse than the latest from Casey Neistat or Vsauce. That’s a nice thing to say—everyone at YouTube has their own obviously prepared line about how much they love “our creators”—and another to design for. Television has a specific look, with the bold colors and big typography and the pictures of newscasters pointing meaningfully off to the side. YouTube’s a little less polished and a lot more varied. For YouTube TV to work, the designers had to find a way to give everything equal footing.

Bringing everything together turned out to be pretty simple: It’s all in the show titles. Cormican’s team experimented with big channel icons and lots of metadata, before deciding all they needed was a tweak in the typography. They built a new, bolder version of YouTube Sans, the playful font YouTube released earlier this year. The resulting thick, black copy gives equal oomph to IISuperwomanII and The Walking Dead, as they sit side by side in the app. When you search, YouTube results co-mingle with CBS and ABC shows, and every show page offers a “Related on YouTube” section with more you can watch. It all looks the same, because to YouTube, it is all the same. (It would like to convince you of that, too, so you’ll pay for it.)

YouTube TV is still in its infancy. It doesn’t have all the channels people want, doesn’t work everywhere, and still doesn’t work as reliably as your clunky old cable box. But it’s getting there. When it does, YouTube might be the first to demonstrate the awesome potential for the future of TV. Everything you want to watch, everywhere you are, no matter what you’re looking for or if you even care. TV, movies, cat videos, vlogs—they’re all the future of television, and they’re all on YouTube. And they’re all live right now.



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