YouTube Owes SNL For Its Success?

    November 25, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

Here’s what we know: Before MTV put its video library online, YouTube was the go-to place for music videos; before Viacom sued now-in-Google’s-deep-pockets-YouTube, NBC had beef over a particular Saturday Night Live sketch appearing on a still virally-promoted, user-generated video site only trend setters and trend watchers were aware of.

This begs the question, as posed by Ars Technica, did one clip, SNL’s Lazy Sunday, propel YouTube to making Internet history and toward Google’s high-priced acquisition? Likely Google is hoping that case doesn’t stick—it only makes it easier for Viacom to bleed them.

General counsel for NBC Universal seems to think without Lazy Sunday, YouTube wouldn’t have made it and owes all its success to SNL. But likely, he has that backward—SNL may owe its survival to YouTube.

Heather Hopkins at Hitwise
looked into the YouTube tipping point question, and did indeed find that the week following Lazy Sunday’s debut, YouTube moved ahead of Google Video, suggesting a sudden critical mass originating with the skit. NBC didn’t complain until the clip peaked in February, having been watched 7 million times, mostly by MySpacers.

What didn’t happen after NBC pulled the Lazy Sunday plug was the leveling off or declining of YouTube. Exponential growth continued thereafter as the Web—and ironically, Viacom’s VH1, became suddenly enamored with amateur short-form video “web junk.” Maybe it was a nudge over the critical mass bump, but it’s kind of hard to say. YouTube’s peak wouldn’t be for a long, long time after, and it may be a coincidence Lazy Sunday appeared just as the site was taking off.

While that’s hard to pinpoint, it’s not hard to pinpoint the benefits NBC reaped from that short burst of exposure. Absent of any real comedy heavyweights—no Adam Sandlers, no Will Ferrells, no Mike Meyers, no Eddie Murphys, Bill Murrays, Steve Martins, or Chevy Chases—who was still paying attention to SNL? This one skit hit the right chord, but what else viral and iconic emerged from SNL until they were handed the comedic gift of Sarah Palin just a couple of months ago?

Nothing, that’s what. And without the political humor and Weekend Update, there is still very little reason to tune into SNL. Your DVR is suddenly your best friend. Even luckier for SNL, MadTV’s going away. If ever there was a time to stock the cast with fantastic talent and regain an adoring audience, it’s now.

But look what else happened, besides YouTube helping get SNL the attention of a new generation: NBC very quickly realized the value of online video and viral content. Instead of litigation to stop the beneficial sharing of its content, NBC launched Hulu, a move Viacom would eventually learn from with MTVOnline, and then let Andy Samberg off of his leash to continue making short, stupid videos perfect for online sharing. Some hit and some miss, but production value is cheap and the online exposure is priceless. Aside from Lazy Sunday and D**k In a Box (Hulu requires age verification), few of these vids have landed at the gates of the Web public’s consciousness.

So, it’s a bit smug to suggest one SNL skit—among dramatic hamsters and Star Wars kids—launched YouTube to international fame, especially when it seems YouTube has paid back that small favor at least tenfold since with much-needed publicity.