Culture

YouTube upgrade turns one-hit wonders into stars

Changes to the popular video site let users create playlists that can be shared with similar-minded fans.

YouTube unveiled a major upgrade of its Web site on Friday that will transform how millions of YouTube fans find videos by encouraging them to subscribe to channels that focus on the latest work of favorite artists or topical themes.

Almost every night, another star is thrust up on YouTube.com, the Silicon Valley start-up that began as a bare-bones video search site and is now, suddenly, at the forefront of this year's grassroots Internet video craze.

YouTube fans are meeting new American idols like cult video performers Anthony Padilla, aka "smosh," now semifamous online for lip synching the Pokemon theme song, and littleloca, who fans recently outed as an out-of-work actress, but who presents herself on YouTube as an 18-year-old Latina living in East Los Angeles.

The changes allow users to create playlists that can be shared with similar-minded fans. Tastes range from high-minded artistry to pop sensibility to dumb and dumber.

YouTube said that it aims to move beyond depending on the latest hit videos, which spread like wild fire across the Internet via e-mail. Instead, it wants to create a personalized programming experience akin to TV viewers surfing channels with a remote control.

The site has shot up U.S. Internet rankings in six months to become five times larger than any other provider of online video, outpacing Yahoo, News Corp.'s MySpace, Microsoft and Google.

"The number of channels a user can watch is exploding," said Mike Powers, a 40-year-old senior product manager at San Mateo, Calif.-based YouTube.

Broadcast TV offers eight channels and cable or satellite TV has up to 600 choices. YouTube allows a viewer to choose 10,000 channels or more, Powers said.

Users set up their own profiles, find others with similar interests and then can create their own TV stations, news outlets and record labels online. Competitors MySpace and YouTube share many of the same fans, even though MySpace is far bigger for activities other than video.

Some YouTube fans upload segments of mass market TV shows, which has drawn the ire of big media companies. But YouTube has moved quickly to remove copyrighted or pornographic content.

"There is no doubt about it. It is still really hard to find good video content you like," said Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, who spends evenings with her children viewing YouTube videos of hamsters, turtles and rainbows.

"Channels can create connections between people who have similar passions and interests," Li said. YouTube users can quickly find lists of channels they want to view by linking to other users.

"Why choose (for) yourself when you can have someone program it for you? I just want to go to someone who can be an editor for me," Li said.

YouTube has become a nonstop talent search for the next hit singers, actors and short-form filmmakers, which has fueled its surging popularity among younger viewers alienated by the conventions of broadcast television.

Aspiring actors are turning to their YouTube fans for inspiration, responding to the interactive comments that viewers contribute, from character development to plot lines for future segments.

Brookers, or Brooke, is a popular 20-year-old videomaker on YouTube who recently told her fans she had been signed by music videomaker Carson Daly Productions for MTV2. "Panic! at the Disco" is a rock band whose YouTube video has been viewed 5 million times, winning them a record deal and a huge fan base.

"We are raising up top talent," Powers said. "They are getting major contracts and changing the talent pool for media companies."

Visitors watch 50 million videos a day on YouTube. They all share an amateur aesthetic. Some are grainy home videos, some are slick proto-professional jobs. Virtually all are one or two-minutes.

Half of YouTube's audience is under 34. Web audience measurement company Hitwise ranked YouTube at 43 among U.S. Web sites last week.

"You can't really tell who is real and who is not," Powers said of the chameleonlike nature of many of the performers who attract big followings. "They have created a character, whether it's a comedian or an actor or a member of a band. You can't really tell who is real."