Brace yourself: Verizon is ready to show off its sexy side

The fall TV season just kicked off, but people under the age of 25 seem not to have noticed. The ratings for that crucial demographic dropped 20 percent compared to last year, just another data point in a much broader sea change that has seen the audience for traditional TV unravelling at a rapid pace. Verizon, which sells a lot of cable TV subscriptions, knows this all too well. And while it's not exactly a youthful brand, it does provide the mobile data network that powers the smartphones of millions of millennials. In an attempt to evolve, Verizon has just launched a new service called Go90, a mobile video app it hopes will appeal to the generation that is leaving traditional television behind.

I was born in 1983, which puts me at the very far edge of the "millennial" demographic that Verizon is trying to court with Go90. And it's true, I have never paid for cable television in my life. I have access to Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, and HBO. I have an Apple TV, so I can purchase films and shows from iTunes that don't come with those subscriptions. And I probably spend the majority of my video-viewing time each month inside services like YouTube and Twitch.

Like many millennials, I'm largely oblivious to network television

I traveled out to San Jose, California last week to spend some time with the folks building Go90. The team leading the project has been working together for over a decade, originally at Microsoft, where they built an IP TV platform that now powers services from AT&T and Deutsche Telekom. From there they headed to Intel, hoping to build a consumer-facing product they could control from end to end: Everything from the hardware box that sat next to your TV, to the software and mobile app, to the content available in its library.

That service, called OnCue, almost launched to the public, and we should know, since The Verge was enlisted as one of the hip, web-native video makers starring in it. But despite a lot of work, and some very fancy parties at CES 2013, the whole project was scrapped when a new CEO, Brian Krzanich, took over in May of that year. The OnCue team had to find a new home, eventually settling with Verizon, which reportedly paid $200 million to acquire them.

At Verizon, the OnCue project was divided in two, with one part aimed just at television and another just at mobile. The mobile side was renamed Go90, a bit of faux youthful slang they invented to describe the moment when you rotate your phone from vertical to horizontal, putting the video into landscape mode, because you're just so "engaged" with the content.

Go90 wants users to form "crews," a painful attempt at using language that would resonate with the urban youth of Gen Z. Crews are groups where people can share videos and follow what their friends are up to. Right now the groups are mostly ghost towns, with posts from users getting little to no likes and comments. That's not a knock on Verizon, it's the typical cold-start problem: nobody wants to be part of a social network that none of their friends are in.

Luckily you can easily share short video clips to networks like Facebook and Twitter. If Go90 is going to succeed, it will probably be because of this feature. You can "clip" your favorite jokes and sports highlights by scrubbing through the video and setting a beginning and end. The end result is the kind of viral snack that works really well on today's web. Verizon is hoping that will draw people from established social networks back into the app.

go90 gif

There are good and bad things about Go90's library of videos. It claims to make mobile content available for free that would otherwise require a paid subscription. All you have to do is sit through some ads. In our testing, the only shows that fit this bill were a few big-name programs from Viacom, notably The Daily Show and The Nightly Show, although both of these can be viewed in part or in whole on YouTube and in their respective apps. There will be ESPN but only a few college football games and a handful of documentaries from its 30 for 30 series.

That cable and network TV content will live side by side with a lot of videos you can easily find on YouTube, which is the vast majority of what I encountered on Go90 over my week of testing. I enjoyed videos from Smosh Games and Nerdist News, but a lot of it was pretty poor-quality stuff from bundlers like Maker, Jukin Media, and WatchMojo.

Worse, some of it was second-run content that had been rebranded to look classier. Go90 suggested I watch the epic rap battle between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, a video that has racked up over 100 million views on YouTube. But it actually showed me only the B-roll from the behind-the-scenes video with the original audio overlaid, resulting in a visually boring clip that had none of the production value the series is known for.

Is this paid promotion, or self-parody?

The last part of the content mix is new material Verizon is paying to produce exclusively for Go90. The company made clear it's not trying to create its version of Transparent or House of Cards, at least not yet. Instead it's giving web-video veterans a budget to make original material, and hoping those creators will bring their youthful audience along with them. It's hard to know if they will be any good, since no original shows were available at launch. Vice is apparently making a documentary series, and New Form Digital is doing an interactive horror show based off a popular YouTube channel. Nerdist is another original content creator and the promotional clip below is one of the first creations to come out of these partnerships. It's... well... judge for yourself.

What will all of this add up to? Verizon is putting a ton of money behind marketing Go90, reportedly $80 million in just this first big push, so don't expect it to fade away any time soon. But so far no old media company has managed to reinvent itself as a successful mobile video player. Perhaps Verizon will be the exception to that rule, but as Peter Kafka recently wrote, the odds don't appear good: "If assembling a bunch of videos, most of which you can see other places, and putting them on devices with a big installed base was a winning formula, then Samsung’s Milk Video product, which does just that, would be a big hit." Instead Milk Video is shutting down next month.

You can see the logic from which all these massive companies are operating quite clearly. "The way we come up with the content lineup was to say, Let’s start with what the millennials and Gen Z are watching," explained Brian Angiolet, the company's senior vice president of consumer products. "And then go out and get just that." Verizon said that Go90's catalog includes 15 of the 30 most-viewed network shows and nine of the 15 most-viewed shows on the web.

But it's not clear if the sum of these parts equals the whole. There is something wonderfully quixotic about recognizing this trend of young viewers moving away from a big cable bundle and watching across multiple services, then addressing that market with an app which bundles all that content back together.

Of course Verizon isn't alone in making this bet. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Comcast, which is an investor in The Verge through our parent company Vox Media, is launching a nearly identical service to Go90 called "Watchable," a name that actually makes Go90 seem pretty slick in comparison. For better or worse, the next few years will bring us a massive influx of video content arriving from companies eager to ride the wave of shifting viewers habits. How much of it will be watchable remains to be seen.