There’s No Battle Between TV and YouTube. Fact.

Lindsey Clay, Managing Director of Thinkbox explains that, just as the Susan Boyle clip on YouTube lead new audiences to Britain’s Got Talent, the two mediums will continue to compliment each other.

Here’s a fact: in the UK, for every minute spent with YouTube, the average person spends nearly an hour watching linear TV. To put it another way: if linear TV was a human being of average height, YouTube would currently be around the length of the world’s smallest mammal, the Etruscan shrew.

I say this not to denigrate YouTube or Etruscan shrews; I genuinely think both are incredible. I say it to try and add some perspective to a debate about YouTube and TV and their relationship that is getting out of hand, fuelled by unsubstantiated claims and misunderstanding.

There still seem to be some lingering voices claiming YouTube is some sort of threat to TV. Google’s Eric Schmidt recently went as far as claiming YouTube had already overtaken TV. Some others – generally drawn from the internet industry, it must be said – assume that it is only a matter of time. But the truth couldn’t be more different.

TV and YouTube are friends
To put it in perspective, here’s an infographic based on official joint industry figures from BARB (which measures TV viewing) and UKOM (which measures internet use). It compares the total proportion of the UK population that is reached and the time they spend watching linear TV, using ‘the internet’ as a whole (which includes watching TV online), and using some of the key internet-based media that receive the most attention in the media, including YouTube.


This infographic doesn’t include mobile use as that isn’t measured yet, but if added in it would increase time spent with the online numbers by less than 10%. But, as you can see, YouTube is a long way from steam-rolling linear TV. In fact, linear TV viewing has reached and maintained a record high at exactly the time that YouTube and other online video platforms have blossomed.

But this misses the point. To set it up as a ‘battle’ between TV and YouTube is wrong in the first place. Not because linear TV is so much bigger, but because TV enjoys an enormously complementary relationship with YouTube. TV is all over YouTube, either as clips or archive series.

So YouTube is one of the many ways to deliver TV content; they co-exist quite happily. But the positive relationship doesn’t end there. By playing host to so much TV, YouTube is effectively TV’s PR department, sparking interest and whetting appetites for more (plenty of new people started watching Britain’s Got Talent the next week after they saw a clip of Susan Boyle on YouTube).

And YouTube is also TV’s audition room: be talented, go viral, get into the news and you might make it into the professional world of TV and the greater legitimacy, fame and opportunity that secures. This is rare, but it does happen.

What is TV and why do we watch it?
So why do people think there is a battle? At the heart of it is a misunderstanding of what TV is and the reasons why people watch it.

TV is a type of content (in both senses of the word); the TV set is by far the preferred device on which we watch it – 98% of TV in the UK is watched on the TV set and 90% of that is watched live. But you can now watch TV on tablets, laptops and smartphones and most of this is watched on-demand.

In a world where video content proliferates, it is increasingly important to delineate between different sorts of video. All TV is video, but not all video is TV. TV – whether watched live or on-demand – is at the high quality/high investment end of the spectrum.

Those who suggest that live, scheduled TV is a bit of a tyranny and that people should liberate themselves by watching what they want when they want are missing the emotional point. Watching on demand doesn’t mean people don’t also want to watch live.

The fact is that people are social beings; they like sharing experiences and doing things together. Very few things bring us together like live TV – add social media to it, as many now do, and you’re not just watching with whomever else is on the sofa, you’re sitting on a virtual sofa with the world.

Thinkbox’s recent research study – ‘Screen Life: TV in demand’ – examined the reasons why people watch live TV or on demand. It found that we watch TV content to meet a range of emotional needs, some of which watching on demand or the social videos that make up the bulk of YouTube can’t easily satisfy, but all of which scheduled TV does satisfy.

The study identified six core emotional reasons why we watch TV: for comfort, to unwind, to connect, to experience, to escape, and to indulge. On demand is particularly good at more personal needs like indulging and escaping, but it comes up short for more passive, relaxed and social needs like unwinding and seeking comfort. And if you want to connect, to feel like you are sharing a TV experience with the rest of us, then watching live is by far the best way for obvious reasons.

I’m not saying that YouTube is not going to grow – it will – or that it isn’t fantastic – it is – but the assumption that YouTube will inevitably cannibalise or kill linear TV time is flawed. They do different things and they are enjoyed for different reasons.