Super Bowl

YouTube's Halftime Show: No Dancing Sharks and No Numbers (Yet)

39-Minute Livestream Featured Fake Ads, Dr. Drew and a Dunk Tank

By Published on .

YouTube's halftime show starred more than 20 of its homegrown celebs.
YouTube's halftime show starred more than 20 of its homegrown celebs.

At the same time that Katy Perry was entertaining an estimated audience of more than 100 million Americans during NBC's Super Bowl halftime show Sunday evening, YouTube was putting on its own halftime show. About thirty minutes in after a minor flub, host Harley Morenstein asked his fellow YouTube creators starring in the live event, "Are we gonna do this again next year?"

It's a good question, one that could still be asked of this year's inaugural effort. Why did YouTube decide to go toe-to-toe with the Super Bowl halftime show?

Too-simple answer: to promote YouTube and its parent company Google. Thirty-nine minutes after the show began -- and four game-minutes into the actual Super Bowl's second-half -- YouTube's halftime show concluded with Mr. Morenstein directing viewers to check out YouTube's Ad Blitz channel after the Super Bowl to vote for their favorite Super Bowl commercials. Then it cut to an ad for Google's Chromecast connected-TV dongle.

Not-so-simple answer: because YouTube wants people to know it thinks it can compete with the mainstream.

'Epic Meal Time' star Harley Morenstein hosted YouTube's halftime show.
'Epic Meal Time' star Harley Morenstein hosted YouTube's halftime show.

The halftime show appeared to be part of YouTube boss Susan Wojcicki's push to promote the online video service's biggest stars. That push was designed to position YouTube stars as mainstream celebrities in the minds of audiences and advertisers and rolled out with TV spots and billboards touting that homegrown talent.

It's like YouTube placed a bet that it was on the cusp of becoming mainstream entertainment. The Super Bowl was a way to check its latest odds.

"It will be fun afterwards to see what was Freddie Wong's draw compared to Katy Perry and Lenny Kravitz," Google's managing director of brand solutions Suzie Reider previously told Bloomberg, referring to the two halftime shows' stars.

The 20-plus stars said to be involved in YouTube's halftime show combine for more than 60 million subscribers to their YouTube channels, the Google-owned company has claimed. Last year's Super Bowl fetched more than 111.5 million viewers in the U.S., according to Nielsen.

Observers looking to compare the YouTube halftime show's audience with NBC's will have to keep looking. Unlike the typical livestream on YouTube -- including YouTube's own Music Awards in November 2013 -- YouTube took down the ticker that tracks how many people were watching live at any given moment. The company also disabled comments during the live program.

YouTube won't release the livestream's viewership figures for a few days, a spokeswoman said. The spokeswoman was unable to comment on why it disabled comments and the viewer count.

A few hours after the livestream finished, YouTube posted five segments from the show as standalone videos. Those five videos combined for 15,810 views as of 9 a.m. ET on Monday morning. A video of the halftime show's opening song alone had notched by 8,784 of those views. The full livestream's watch page appears to have been taken down.

YouTube's most passionate fans may have tuned into YouTube's halftime show Sunday evening. The program, produced by online video network Collective Digital Studio, seemed to be produced for them. It was as unpretentious, awkwardly charming, self-aware and comically random as a YouTube's star's first few webcam monologues.

The hook for the YouTube halftime show's opening song was "This is the first-ever YouTube halftime show." At one point the show's host, Mr. Morenstein left the stage after being prompted for a urine test by Dr. Drew. At another point Mr. Morenstein interviewed two guys from YouTube channel Mars Rising who shot a fake ad for the show. At yet another point the studio audience stomped and clapped the beat for a musical performance.There were also pre-recorded man-on-the-street interviews, a record-setting science experiment and bounce-house basketball.

YouTube's halftime show was a homegrown production that aimed to steal attention from the Super Bowl. It was YouTube in a nutshell.

YouTube is a multibillion-dollar business -- the pillar of Google's strategy to steal TV ad dollars -- that attracts more than 1 billion viewers each month. But aside from the aptly named hangar-turned-studio YouTube Space LA, YouTube's halftime show didn't evince any of its moguldom. While Katy Perry was setting off fireworks, YouTube sat a man in a dunk tank.

The halftime show was filmed at YouTube's Space LA studio.
The halftime show was filmed at YouTube's Space LA studio.

The show also showed that YouTube is trying to straddle two main audiences: the core YouTube fan who scroll her channel subscription list like a TV programming guide, and the casual viewer who checks out YouTube videos in his Facebook feed but doesn't make a habit of checking YouTube.

YouTube likely expected the core audience to watch its halftime show, but it also wanted to siphon some of the mainstream audience away from the Super Bowl. In her interview with Bloomberg, Ms. Reider said that producing the halftime show was a good way to promote YouTube's stars. That implies promoting those stars to people who don't know about them.

If the YouTube Music Awards are any indication, YouTube's live productions fetch a much larger audience after the show is wrapped. A day after the YouTube Music Awards aired, the livestream's watch page counted less than 900,000 views. About a year later, that full-event video counted 4.6 million views. And all the videos from the show -- including shorter edited clips from the show that were posted later on YouTube -- totaled more than 54 million views by November 2014.

Until YouTube releases viewership numbers , it will be hard to judge what kind of appetite there is for a live YouTube halftime show. And it will be hard to judge how much those initial numbers matter in the long run.

Maybe YouTube wasn't actually trying to go head-to-head with the Super Bowl. Maybe it was just sparring, sizing itself against its ambition.

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