STV's bite into digital territory offers one view of television's future

STV yesterday submitted to the relentless march of the digital age by signing a deal to put its shows on the free video sharing website YouTube.

Details of how much revenue the deal will eventually bring to STV were obscure. Both STV and Google, YouTube's owner, were keeping the commercial terms a secret, which makes you wonder just what sort of terms STV was able to wring out of the internet giant. Nor was it clear whether STV signed the deal on the same terms as its bigger English rivals, Channel Four and Five.

Bobby Hain, STV's head of broadcasting, was adamant the deal would be lucrative. STV still faces declining advertising revenues - down 17 per cent in 2009 - and it desperately needs to make cash to fund programmes that people want to watch.

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There are questions as to whether Lorraine Kelly's programme Scotland's Missing Mums will prove a massive hit with the YouTube generation. But what users of the website will eventually unearth from STV's archive is anyone's guess. The ingenuity - and tastes - of YouTube users are as indefinable as they are unpredictable. Who would have thought that the mysterious "horse boy" - a man in a purple shirt and horse head mask who was caught by the Google Street View cameras in Aberdeen - would make headlines?

Hain hopes that users might like to dig up snippets of Scottish football matches. He also expects that they will like to watch Underbelly, an Australian drama that has so far proved a hit on STV's free-to-view online TV player.

But the need to do a deal with YouTube highlights some of the quirks of how people use the internet - what will be made available on YouTube is not that much different from what is already available on its STV player, launched last year.

All broadcasters tend to have one - BBC has its iPlayer, Channel 4 had 4OD. But while the STV player has some users - it says it streamed 800,000 shows and excerpts since it launched - it is only the heft of YouTube's 400 million estimated users worldwide that currently matters. That Google - which acquired YouTube in a $1.65 billion deal in 2006 - has yet to figure how to make its video platform profitable is yet another matter altogether.

What STV won't get from the deal is a way to stream online content through television sets across the UK. Although online broadcast is growing, there are still more glued to the screen in the lounge than on their laptops. Although the BBC and BSkyB - and some devices like the XBox - either have or are developing ways for people to view online video content through the family TV, GoogleTV will only be launched at the end of this year and only in the US.

Undoubtedly, the YouTube model has changed the way people watch videos. Most still watch it passively - looking at "what's popular" lists or viewing links sent by friends via e-mail or on Facebook - but with millions of pieces of video to choose from, there are snippets to appeal to all tastes. I was amused recently by the "Hayek v Keynes rap anthem" which featured a cocktail-swilling big spending economist, John Maynard Keynes, being lectured by a stern and sober Austrian on macro equilibrium. As a rap. As I said, there are all things for all tastes.

There are millions - the "YouTube community" - who create the videos that the hundreds of millions watch and most for much less than traditional broadcasters currently spend. YouTube has been around for five years and since, old-school broadcasters have found themselves on the back foot when the kids started staying in their rooms watching - and making - "mash-ups" and clever video parodies in their droves.

Most of these productions disappear into digital obscurity, and quite rightly so: the content ranges from film quality to a kid with a shaky webcam. But what assures a YouTube hit is not expensive production values but rather ideas - whether these be funny or satirical or even important and newsworthy. Or dull and crass or completely stupid. Such is the outrageous fortune of user-generated content.

But the unusual upside of the deal for STV, after revenues and a potential new international audience for "Thingummyjig", is a potential mine of ideas. Like some schlock horror movie zombie mash-up, STV wants the YouTube community's brains: Hain has said that he wants the tie-up with YouTube to be a two-way street. The content that users create and upload "could be a starting point for something that becomes a television programme on STV," says Hain.

Some have found it possible to criticise the quality of STV's current output, such as the cheap-to-produce reality shows presented by the redoubtable Lorraine Kelly, or the relentless cheerful magazine style of The Hour. If STV had more money, it could produce higher quality TV. Or it could source clever ideas even more cheaply from YouTube users. Welcome to the future of broadcasting.