When my wife and I cut the cord around this time last year, we both went into the process expecting very little change in terms of our viewing habits. We had Hulu and CBS All Access. We had Netlix and Amazon Prime. We were already looking toward Disney+ on the horizon. Best I could tell, practically every traditional broadcast show we still cared to watch would be
covered by our streaming-media subscriptions for something like 30% of the cost of the most basic satellite package. And with better picture quality to boot.
Fast-forward to 2020, and we’ve landed in a place I don’t think either of us would have ever predicted. While we still check in on a few of our favorite broadcast shows (one fewer now that The Good Place has ended its brilliant run), that old tether to traditional media unravels more and more every week.
So much so that if you take movies out of the equation, a full 60% of the TV we watch comes from YouTube, of all places.
Before you jump to any conclusions about cat videos shot on mobile phones or “Gangnam Style” (is that still a thing?), a few caveats are in order. My wife and I aren’t crowded around a laptop playing whack-a-mole with a mouse or trackpad. We’re watching YouTube on the same home entertainment system where we watch our Kaleidescape movie server. That means, of course, relying on a good video streamer. (Roku in our case, since none of the other major streamers support YouTube in its highest-quality 4K/HDR output.)
We’re also not zipping through a never-ending stream of three- or four-minute short-attention-span clips, either. I’ve talked at length already about our love of Critical Role, each episode of which runs about as long as your average Lord of the Rings movie (Extended Editions, of course). Another of our favorite channels as of late is Baumgartner Restoration, which features in-depth painting restorations,
presented in 4K, performed by one of the foremost private conservation studios in the US. Julian Baumgartner’s videos often run upwards of 40 minutes each, and are often offered in two forms: One with narration and one aimed at the ASMR crowd, with little more by way of audio accompaniment than the subtle sounds of scraping and brushing.
Perhaps more importantly, though, my wife and I are not slave to YouTube’s willy-nilly recommendation algorithms. In fact, although it’s taken us the better part of a year now, we’ve actually trained YouTube to work for us, serving up content that suits our particular interests to the exclusion of nearly everything else. As eclectic as our proclivities are, that’s no easy task, but as a buddy of mine recently mused when he dropped by to hang out for the afternoon, “YouTube has got you two weirdos figured out. How?!”
He’s absolutely correct in his assessment. Scroll my YouTube feed on the big screen and you’re likely to see silly sports mockumentaries starring a cast of colorful marbles flanked by Irish people trying American food for the first time on one side and noob-friendly music theory on the other.
For every episode of Adam Savage’s Tested, there’s a lecture by Noam Chomsky or an old episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. or a rumination about the intersection of classical mythology and folklore with Dungeons & Dragons.
And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Eeesh, what a scattershot feed of videos! That’s exactly the sort of mess that has turned me off of YouTube thus far,” recognize that this hodgepodge is a stew of my own making. That’s exactly what I want my YouTube page to look like: A balanced mix of intelligent politics, fine art, comic book art, D&D, video games, 1970s and ’80s toys, engineering, and adorable frivolity. And no doubt your feed would look a little erratic to me if you spent the time to train it. That’s exactly the point. In terms of customization to one’s unique preferences, there simply aren’t any other streaming-video platforms that hold a candle to YouTube.
But back to my buddy’s most important question: “How?!” It’s simple, really. And it boils down to two words you’re probably sick of hearing if you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in the new media landscape: Like and subscribe.
My wife and I have separate logins on our YouTube Roku app. We have spent ages now carefully curating a list of
What Makes This Song Great?
From the Drawing Board w/Dael Kingsmill
Biffa Plays Indie Games
channels to which we each subscribe. There is some overlap, of course, because we’re an old married couple. But what I’ve noticed is that every difference in our respective subscription lists is reflected in substantial differences in our homepages. What’s more, the relationships between our subscribed channels also seem to have a significant influence on what we’re recommended.
It seems to me that there’s some pretty sophisticated calculus going on here. Whereas Netflix seems to offer up recommendations along the lines of, “87% of people who watched what you just watched also watched this other thing,” YouTube’s thinking seems to involve a little more triangulation: “If you subscribe to A and B, maybe you’ll like C?” If not, YouTube eventually gives up and tries more of a “If you like X and Y, maybe Z?” approach.
My wife, on the other hand, seems to be getting equations more along the lines of “A + X = Purple.” Old married couple though we may be, her brain is still a mystery to me at times. In fact, it often feels like YouTube has her figured out better than I do.
In other words, YouTube’s recommendation algorithms appear to me to be an order of magnitude more sophisticated than those of Netflix. And you could argue that this is because YouTube isn’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars creating new movies and TV shows it must force down the throats of mass audiences in order to justify its investments and hang onto your subscription fees. You could also just as easily argue that YouTube is using this intimate model of your personality to serve you with more relevant ads, which Netflix doesn’t have to worry about. But, for whatever reason, YouTube has allowed my wife and me to hand-craft media portals that genuinely speak to our unique personal tastes.
So, if you’ve dabbled with YouTube in your home media system and found it to be a largely disconnected torrent of seemingly unrelated clips of little interest to you, do what we’ve done and spend a little time training it. There’s a wealth of reference-quality home theater demos on the service, but what’s more, there’s a ton of entertaining (and even informative) content the likes of which you’ll never find on more traditional service providers like broadcast television or even Netflix.
Spend some time teaching YouTube who you are, and you may just find that it completely changes the way you watch TV.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.