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YouTube, the world’s biggest video site, wants to sell you TV for $35 a month

Meet YouTube TV.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

YouTube used to be the place you could watch almost anything you wanted, for free. Now YouTube wants to be the place that sells you TV.

Google’s video site is taking the wraps off YouTube TV, its new $35-a-month TV service that will package a bundle of channels from the broadcast networks and some cable networks.

YouTube says the service, which will sit in a new, standalone app, will launch later this spring. It’s separate from YouTube Red, the ad-free subscription service the company launched last year, which hasn’t had much success.

YouTube TV is supposed to be “mobile first” — that is, YouTube expects that subscribers will spend most of their time watching on phones, though they’ll also be able to watch on devices like laptops and traditional TVs, via Google’s Chromecast devices.


Like other new digital TV services, YouTube TV won’t offer every network that cable TV services provide; instead it will feature a “skinny bundle,” composed of the four broadcast networks — Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC — along with some of the cable channels related to the broadcasters. Which means you’ll also get networks like Fox News, ESPN and Bravo; YouTube execs say the base package will include about three dozen channels.

Here’s a list, in non-list form:

YouTube TV will compete with digital TV services launched in the last few years by Dish Networks, Sony and AT&T. Hulu, which is jointly owned by Disney, 21st Century Fox, Comcast* and Time Warner, will launch its own pay TV bundle this spring.

One thing that distinguishes YouTube TV from its competitors is that while it will feature cable networks owned by companies that also own broadcast networks — so it will offer both ESPN and ABC, both owned by Disney — it doesn’t feature any networks owned by programmers that operate exclusively on pay TV, like Viacom, AMC or Time Warner.

YouTube isn’t ruling out working with those programmers down the line. For instance, it would like to find a way to work with Time Warner so that it could offer HBO, but Time Warner execs say that won’t happen until YouTube cuts a deal with its Turner networks like CNN. But it is also suggesting that YouTube watchers will be fine without most cable channels, since YouTube already has so much free stuff.

What YouTube is really pushing, though, is the notion that while it may have the same programming as its competitors, it will have a better service. YouTube product chief Neal Mohan says the company has been working on YouTube TV for two years; he promises that you’ll see the results when you actually get to play with it.

Since you can’t do that yet, here are some of the features Mohan has talked up:

  • A cloud DVR with unlimited storage space, included in the base package. (That’s a feature Hulu has been talking about selling as an add-on to its base package.)
  • A recommendation system powered by Google’s AI.
  • “Reliability and scalability” — a not-veiled reminder that other digital TV services have had technical struggles when they first launched.

YouTube TV’s $35 base price puts it squarely in the same bracket as its competitors — AT&T’s DirectTV Now, for instance, also launched with a $35-per-month offer.

Figuring out which one of these makes sense for you will require substantial work on your part as you figure out what kind of programming you really want and what the various services offer: DirecTV Now, for instance, includes cables channels that YouTube TV doesn’t have, like MTV, AMC and CNN, but it doesn’t have CBS.

Also be aware that all of the digital TV services still have gaps in their coverage, usually around pro football: Deals — or lack of them — with local affiliates may affect your ability to watch your local NFL team play next fall. And none of the streaming TV services will let you watch football on your phone, because those rights, for now, are exclusive to Verizon.

YouTube TV’s pricing will make it hard/impossible for YouTube to turn a profit, given the carriage fees it has to shell out for the four big networks, but YouTube doesn’t seem concerned about that: Right now it wants to work on turning some of its billion-plus users into paying subscribers.

There’s a bit of full-circle going on here: YouTube first broke through the popular consciousness as an anything-goes video repository where you could watch unauthorized versions of TV clips like “Saturday Night Live’s” “Lazy Sunday.”

YouTube and Google spent years in a cold war with the TV guys, and the site’s existence spurred them to create Hulu as a sort of anti-YouTube; now the two services are about to compete directly again, this time selling the kind of pay TV services that were supposed to die off years ago.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal is an investor in Vox Media, which owns this site.

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