An evening with the YouTube killers

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Marketers may be ready for video ads, but are users ready to embrace the platform with open arms? We got the scoop from the people who matter most — users.

Internet video is exploding.

Internet video is here.

Internet video is around the corner. Internet video is a flop.

These are just a few of the wild claims that have been swirling around internet video for the past few months.

Buttressed by a protracted writers’ strike (now over), proponents of the medium have taken the opportunity to declare victory, calling web video a bona fide rival to TV. But detractors have been quick to point out that internet video — though popular — has yet to deliver the audiences advertisers crave.

So, who’s right?

For marketers looking to tap into internet video, the prospects can be daunting. Either they’re betting on the next big thing or the next big flop. Missing in this tug of war are the voices of the people who will ultimately decide the outcome of the debate. While there is ample data on the viewing habits of internet video users, there are few forums for those individuals to express their opinions on the shifting media landscape.

We decided to gather a small group of twenty- and thirty-somethings to tell us what they think about long-form internet video.

See how the other half watches
He doesn’t know it, but Todd is on the cutting edge of internet video. A thirty-something musician, Todd gave up on TV sometime in the late ’90s long before many of his peers envisioned a world without traditional media.

At the time that Todd opted out of TV, there wasn’t a true media alternative, but when he moved in with his girlfriend, Andrea, he setup a next-generation den in the second bedroom of their Los Angeles-area condominium.

While the couch remains the same, Todd and Andrea’s TV has morphed into a giant Mac with a DSL connection. Todd, who says he hates ads, prefers to download his favorite shows on iTunes at $2 a pop. Andrea, who says she doesn’t mind unobtrusive ads, seldom pays for content, preferring to visit network websites to watch her favorite shows.

Relying only on the web for video content, Andrea and Todd seem to be the perfect hosts for an evening of internet video, but when I query them about the medium, I get an unexpected answer.

Todd, who admits to spending countless hours watching some of the web’s more low-brow offerings on YouTube and Break.com, explains that it’s best not to expect too much from the web.

“This is what internet video is really about,” Todd says, pointing to a clip of Filipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

I had expected Todd to tell me that the internet was giving him TV-style entertainment in a more palatable format, but instead he doesn’t seem to expect much from video that isn’t on iTunes, reasoning that if it’s free, it’s probably not worth very much.

The small crowd seems to agree.

“I get really bored with a lot of what’s out there on the internet,” Barrett, a video editor, explains. While he laughs at the Filipino prisoners and a hapless martial artist who injures himself with nunchucks, Barrett doesn’t consider what he sees on YouTube to be entertainment in the classical sense. “If I want to be entertained, I sit down on the couch,” he says, “this other stuff [short clips on YouTube] is just for killing time at work.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Adam, a twenty-something entertainment executive, who says picture quality and a deluge of amateurish offerings keep him faithful to his TV (and TiVo).

“For me to watch video online the way I watch TV, the content needs to go from ‘Lonelygirl’ to ‘Cloverfield,'” Adam says, adding that constant buffering and low-resolution images make the web a poor choice for relaxing entertainment.

When I ask Adam if he ever watches his favorite TV shows online, he groans.

“If I miss something, I’ll watch,” he says. “But the problem is the player. Most networks just have awful players.”

Andrea, who doesn’t have a TV, agrees, pointing out that ABC offers the only reliable internet video experience. As a result, she says she watches shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” but has given up on programs on other networks because buffering and constant crashes have simply turned her away.

Michelle, a thirty-something educator, says she hasn’t even gone as for as Adam and Andrea, pointing out that she lacks a high-powered computer and therefore considers internet video out of her reach.

“It usually doesn’t work,” she says. “I might watch a clip on YouTube, but I don’t have a powerful enough computer to watch a whole show, so I just don’t bother.”

The room stares back at me wondering how anyone can really make a living writing about internet video. When I assure them major brands have spent — and are planning to spend — sizeable portions of their ad budgets on internet video, I get blank looks.

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