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June 20, 2013

Can TV ever stop YouTube?

(Continued)

PALO ALTO, Calif. —

This being Google, the solutions to the speed and discovery problems involve lots of engineering tricks. Last year, YouTube began radically overhauling the way it streams videos to users. In the past, when you requested a video from the site, it would send you a single stream containing the whole video. Once the content left YouTube's servers, the company no longer had any control over it; if there was some hiccup along the way, it couldn't serve you a lower-quality video or reroute your request to a different server in another part of the world. So you'd watch the annoying spinner while your video "rebuffered."

Today, across YouTube, rebuffering occurs far too often. Any given video will stop and start around 3 to 5 percent of the time. This differs vastly by country — videos in Japan rebuffer less often than video in India, where the Internet is slower — but the company's goal is to improve these rates everywhere. "Imagine if you got a new television provider and your videos stopped 5 percent of the time, or imagine if it took you five seconds to change channels," says Shishir Mehrotra, a vice president of product at YouTube. "You would get a new television provider, and you wouldn't change channels very much." Mehrorta's goal is to reduce YouTube's rebuffering rate to around 0.1 percent, and he wants videos to start playing within 200 milliseconds of your choosing them, or what he calls "instant time."

The discovery problem is thornier than the speed issue. YouTube's partner program has led to lots of new content on the site. Thousands of channel owners, many of whom have garnered millions of subscribers, now earn money from their YouTube videos. Some of these are quite popular: The comedy duo Smosh have 10 million subscribers, the gaming channel Machinima has 8 million, and a fashion and beauty channel run by Bethany Mota has 2 million. But aside from a few breakout successes, most YouTube channels aren't of mainstream interest; by design, they appeal to niche audiences. To make itself comparable to traditional TV, YouTube needs to fashion these small videos into a larger, more comprehensible viewer experience for viewers. It needs to know what you like, and to serve you a new video that you'll love each time the previous one ends.

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