When YouTube decided to build a cable TV-like product back in 2014, a big part of the goal was just to create a better relationship with Hollywood. After seven years of fighting with Viacom about widespread copyright infringement, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wanted a way to work with networks and studios, not against them. She hired Christian Oestlien, who is now a VP of product management at YouTube, and gave him a broad mandate: “figure out what YouTube might be able to do with the larger media companies, with a focus around television.”
Seven years later, YouTube TV, the company’s live cable streaming bundle, is a hit. The company announced today that 5 million people are currently either paying for or testing out YouTube TV, which isn’t exactly the same as having 5 million subscribers but is nevertheless an impressive figure. It’s up 2 million subscribers since mid-2020, even as the number of cable subscribers in the US continues to dwindle, according to Variety — down to 46.2 million total in the first quarter of this year. Comcast, which is the biggest player in US cable, reported 17.6 million subscribers in the first quarter of this year, down almost two million over the last year. (Disclosure: Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, is also an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.)
Meanwhile, the internet-cable options have been a mixed bag. Hulu with Live TV is growing nicely, with roughly 4.1 million subscribers, while Fubo, Sling, and a few others have mostly failed to catch on. All in all, five million subscribers makes YouTube TV a small but real player in the TV market.
All these numbers, of course, pale in comparison to Netflix’s 220-million-plus subscribers or the 130 million or so who pay for Disney Plus. And in a time when the rise of on-demand streaming seems so inevitable, it’s easy to wonder how long YouTube TV’s “cable but better” plan can really work. Oestlien says, well, a while. Live TV may be dying, but it’s going to take a while to croak. And there’s still money to be made: “TV, for all of its flaws, is still a really lucrative business to our partners,” Oestlien says.
The truth is, YouTube TV mostly exists because of sports, which continues to be the most lucrative thing happening in the TV world — too lucrative, in fact, to become a fully streaming entity. “Most of the great sports programming still sits within the bundle,” Oestlien says, particularly with local broadcast channels and regional networks. Those are still the main reasons people sign up for YouTube TV or any of its competitors. It’s the cable bundle but in a better app, with more DVR storage, and you can cancel anytime. “For all intents and purposes, it is a sports bundle, with a few really compelling networks added to round it out and make it something that the whole household can enjoy.”
Okay, but won’t sports still eventually turn to streaming? Already, leagues like the NFL and MLB are beginning to sell rights to companies like Amazon and Apple, Disney is increasingly all-in on ESPN’s digital future, and that trend seems likely to continue. Oestlien agrees but says that might make YouTube TV even more useful. As more leagues sign up with streaming services or even build their own, he says, turning on the game has become vastly more complicated. And expensive. “You just have to think about the pricing strategy that would have to be implemented there,” Oestlien says. “To make that all work, you end up in a place where a bundle actually makes a lot of sense.” Plus, as those rights get more expensive, he’s betting leagues and networks alike won’t balk at a company with deep pockets looking to get in on the action. YouTube has had its fair share of carriage disputes over the years, but the networks seem to need YouTube TV as much as the platform needs the content.
The real bet YouTube TV is making is that the bundle won’t die with cable. We’ve gone through a generation of unbundling, separating content from a single source into dozens of them. That has made the services cheaper and led to a huge uptick in great content, but it’s also made discovery harder and account management more complicated — and it’s not always clear how much money you’re really saving. Oestlien and YouTube think that rather than break the bundle for good, someone just needs to build a better one.
There’s even a world in which Oestlien thinks YouTube TV could re-bundle the streaming services, bringing Peacock and Paramount Plus back together the way CBS and NBC used to be in the TV Guide. Right now, that sounds like a pipe dream: rather than working together, the streaming services are currently desperate to keep users inside their own content universes. Netflix and others have even resisted being included in universal search tools because they’d rather you open the Netflix app to find something than just search for it on Justwatch. But as those services proliferate, many of them might have a reason to look for a company with great distribution — and those deep pockets.
YouTube’s not the only company on this path, by the way. Apple and Amazon have both had success letting users subscribe to HBO, Starz, and others through their own platforms; HBO, for instance, is reportedly about to come back to Amazon Channels after previously bailing on the service and losing 5 million subscribers in the process. And you can already sign up for HBO Max and access all its content within the YouTube TV app. Most services have opted not to be part of these catch-all systems so far, though.
The bundle is key not just to YouTube TV but to YouTube as a whole. Play out the current streaming trends long enough, and you can see how they could become a threat to everything YouTube does. What if Carpool Karaoke was only available on Peacock, and the only way to see John Oliver’s latest epic rant was on HBO Max? What if music videos went exclusively to Spotify and Apple Music? YouTube has a huge amount of original content, of course, but TikTok and Instagram and others are desperate to change that as well. YouTube’s role as the internet’s largest distributor of other people’s video is a huge part of the platform’s success, and a push toward more control and streaming could change that over time.
That might be why, talking to Oestlien, I get the sense that YouTube TV is still, in part, a tool for making nice with the content providers. Oestlien also oversees YouTube’s connected TV business, which means he helps broker deals to put all kinds of TV content onto the standard YouTube platform, and he seems decidedly unworried about losing access to content. “We’ve got 2 billion users worldwide,” he says. “So I think whether content is distributed in a bundle, or where over time we explore other ways of distributing it, I think YouTube can be a great partner there.” Even in sports, he says, YouTube is making deals both to stream games on YouTube TV but also to use leagues’ content in lots of other places on the platform.
Five years in, YouTube TV feels like both a hit and a hedge. But the truth is, if we’re ever going to get a wildly different future of TV, it’s still a ways off. There’s too much money, especially in sports, dedicated to keeping things the way they’ve been for decades. “Cable but better” might not always be the best idea in TV, but for now, it’s working pretty well.