Things used to be a lot simpler for mainstream broadcasters in the old days before internet video sites existed. It is difficult now to recall the era before YouTube and Google Video. Why, it must have been a good, oooh, four months ago.

Even by the standards of the internet, the rise of viral video has been rapid. Since YouTube launched in mid-December (with Google Video following in January), there has been an explosion of strange, funny and weird video clips that anyone can watch online. Most are made not by broadcasters and advertisers but by people messing around at home.

Among the 40m videos being watched daily on YouTube are films of a Gulfstream aircraft landing at night, film trailers and sporting clips, and two young women dancing around a room and lip-synching to the song “Hey” by the Pixies. The last may not sound like must-view material but it has been watched 30m times and attracted 2,400 comments.

Google’s high-faluting “mission” is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” but video sites show how search changes the world as much as revealing it. The fact that anyone’s film can now be viewed by millions has not only encouraged people to display their home movies online, but has galvanised many into becoming would-be entertainers.

Broadcasters are now waking up to this emerging phenomenon. They are responding faster than the music industry did, having the advantage of hindsight. But they need to sharpen their efforts, and jettison traditional ways of doing things if they want to make use of viral video. If they do not, they may find their share of viewers’ attention squeezed.

The most obvious challenge for broadcasters is breach of copyright. It is easy for anybody with a hard disk video recorder to capture a clip of a programme that they liked and post it to a video internet site. The now-classic example of this was “Lazy Sunday”, the Saturday Night Live sketch posted by an anonymous user, which pushed YouTube into the mainstream last December.

NBC’s insistence that YouTube took down the clip, despite the publicity it generated, caused an outbreak of internet whingeing about how mainstream broadcasters just don’t get it. But it is a bit hard to see the alternative to copyright enforcement. The danger of losing all control of intellectual property (the nightmare of the music industry) is real.

That said, copyright enforcement by itself will do nothing to help the broadcasters compete with, or take advantage of, viral video. The task is two-fold: to produce material that the typical 18- to 25-year-old YouTube user actually wants to see, and to distribute it in a way that will grab his or her attention. In both regards, broadcasters have to adapt to match nascent consumer demand.

Networks have been reaching deals to let programmes be viewed online: ABC announced last week that it will allow some of its programmes to be downloaded free after they have been broadcast. But YouTube users watch not full-length programmes but short clips, which are easier to view on computer screens and do not strain home broadband connections.

Broadcasters need not transform their studios into short-form video factories to take advantage of this. A lot of programmes, such as comedy sketch shows and sports events, can already be split into clips. By making them available to viewers after the initial broadcast, they can spark interest in the underlying programmes and even gain advertising.

The benefit for broadcasters would be the internet enhancement of the water-cooler effect. Instead of office workers merely repeating lines from a comedy show to each other the morning after it is broadcast, they could watch the best part. The difficulty is that broadcasters will have to relax some of their traditional control over the distribution of programmes to make a go of it.

Like all content owners, broadcasters would like everyone who wants to see video clips to come to their own sites. NBC has made sketches from Saturday Night Live (including “Lazy Sunday”) available on its site after having cracked down on illegal copies elsewhere. But there is the rub: the clip was only displayed after becoming popular elsewhere.

A broadcaster that selects a small number of clips to put up on its website is at a disadvantage to a viral or community video site. These do not attempt the feat of predicting which clips will be the most popular. The users decide this by recommending the ones they like, voting for them, linking to them, and pushing them up the charts of most-viewed videos.

That method of operating attracts people. Hitwise, the online research group, estimates that the top six video sites (YouTube, MSN Video, Yahoo Video, Google Video, AOL Video and iFilm) now gain twice as much traffic as the top six US broadcast network sites. People also spend longer with the first group – an average of 12 minutes viewing per visit compared with under eight minutes.

Until they make their own sites richer by allowing viewers to choose from more material, broadcasters will remain at a self-imposed disadvantage. Even then, it would be self-defeating merely to stay within their own silos. They must take more advantage of other video sites not only to distribute full-length programmes but to entice viewers with shorter clips.

The MTV generation was at least watching the box, even if it preferred three-minute pop videos to adult dramas. The broadcasters’ challenge is bigger now. The YouTube generation has discovered another form of screen entertainment and what it cannot search for, it may not find.

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