By going pro, YouTube risks alienating its amateur core

YouTube has bigger fish to fry.

No longer is YouTube just about viral memes and videos of people hurting themselves. The business model of online video is evolving and so too are the site’s priorities.

In October 2011, YouTube embarked on a campaign to attract more professional-grade content to the site, dolling out over $150million in cash advances to professional video creators offering slicker material with higher production value.

With this has come an influx of celebrity. Global superstars Madonna, Ashton Kutcher and Jaz-Z have all been drafted in to host YouTube channels, whilst Hollywood stalwart Tom Hanks is currently working on his own YouTube project.

However, such sweeping changes have left one group out in the cold: the legions of amateur video producers who helped transform the site into the entertainment colossus it is today.

YouTube has made several changes throughout the year that have pulled the rug from underneath the feet of its amateur core. One such change involved forcing users into adopting a more streamlined layout on their channels by slashing the number of customisation options available to them.

Tensions climaxed earlier this year when YouTube made significant changes to the algorithm used to decide how clips were recommended to viewers. Thousands of amateur producers protested that the move favoured longer, more professionally-produced material uploaded by high-profile channels, relegating their own content to the YouTube wilderness. 

Unfortunately for these users, these moves are symptomatic of a site maturing in line with digital entertainment’s changing ecosystem. In the US market, the projected revenue from digital advertising is expected to balloon from $2.4 billion this year to a whopping $7.1 billion in 2015, when 40% of the US are predicted to regularly watch TV online, according to e-marketer.

Such game-changing statistics demand an improvement in the service YouTube offers. With the rise of digital streaming services such as Netflix and an increasing number of users opening Vimeo accounts, YouTube needs to remain competitive. Ultimately, the sweeping transformation from user-generated content to professional programming could even aid the site in its quest to become the next-generation TV provider.

“Our big advertisers like the path that YouTube has taken”, says Andy Chapman, head of digital investment at Mindshare, a prominent American advertising agency.

“A number of clients say this looks and feels like the direction the market is going”

But in adapting to the evolving landscape of the video entertainment industry, YouTube runs the risk of alienating the creative, entrepreneurial lifeblood that fostered its rise. The site is seemingly forgetting its roots, but that’s business I guess.

Photo: Reuters

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.