Susan Boyle, the frumpy Scotswoman who became a worldwide singing sensation last month, may wind up as the winner this week of Britain’s Got Talent, the hit ITV show.
After a six-week absence, she returned on Sunday night to sing Memory from the musical Cats, wowing the crowd and advancing to Saturday’s finale. The producers immediately posted her performance on the Internet for the rest of the world to see.
Net popularity: People gather to watch Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent. In April, her videos were viewed 220 million times on YouTube. Danny Lawson / AP
She has already won a popularity contest on YouTube, where videos of her April performances have been viewed an astounding 220 million times. But until now, her runaway Web success has made little money for the programme’s producers or distributors.
FremantleMedia Enterprises, a production company that owns the international digital rights to the talent show, hastily uploaded video clips to YouTube after Boyle’s debut, but the clips do not appear to be generating any advertising revenue for the company.
The case reflects the inability of big media companies to maximize profit from supersize Internet audiences that seem to come from nowhere. In essence, the complexities of TV production are curbing the Web possibilities. Britain’s Got Talent is produced jointly by three companies and distributed in Britain by a fourth, ITV, making it difficult to ascertain which of the companies can claim a video as its own.
Before the current season of the show started on 11 April, the parties tried to cut a distribution deal with YouTube, but they could not agree on terms, according to two people with knowledge of the talks, who asked for anonymity.
YouTube, a unit of Google Inc., has been keen to make money from its hulking library of online video by signing contracts with copyright owners and sharing the revenue from ads it sells before, during, after and alongside the videos. Major media companies have shown varying degrees of interest in these deals, in part because they are reticent to split much money with Google.
Then Simon Cowell, an American Idol judge, who is also a producer and a host of Britain’s Got Talent, helped introduce Boyle to the world.
Her performance was a made-for-TV fairy tale: A dowdy 48-year-old makes awkward jokes, the audience engages in a collective eye-roll, then the performer shocks everyone by bursting into a soulful, Broadway-worthy rendition of I Dreamed a Dream.
Cut to the amazed faces in the theatre, hear the judge Piers Morgan call her singing “without a doubt the biggest surprise I have had in three years on this show”, and cut to commercial.
On YouTube, though, where the segment was viewed by more people than could ever have witnessed it on TV in Britain, there were no commercials. The tens of millions of views swiftly brought YouTube and the producers back to the negotiating table, and soon they reached a deal for video clips. YouTube was especially interested in a deal because the company was essentially losing money by serving every video stream without recouping any of the costs.
FremantleMedia “is investigating the best routes to monetize the channel in conjunction with relevant partners”, said a spokeswoman, Belinda Thomas, who said the firm would not comment further.
The production companies and YouTube worked through the weekend on a more comprehensive deal, which would enable FremantleMedia to place ads against unofficial copies of the show, using YouTube’s Content ID system, which companies such as Universal Music already use.
How much money have the parties lost? In the days after Boyle’s debut, The Times of London published what it called a “crude estimate” suggesting that the parties involved had left $1.87 million (Rs8.82 crore) on the table.
While other TV networks act quickly to remove videos when users upload them without copyright permissions, ITV has “nonexistent piracy enforcement on YouTube”, said David Burch, a marketing manager at TubeMogul, an online measurement firm. The broadcaster and producers allowed the copies to stay online because they created buzz for the programme. The clips have received more than a half-million user comments.
The view counts continued to grow as people awaited Boyle’s next performance. Visible Measures, a company that tracks online video placements, said Boyle was responsible for the fastest growing viral video in the roughly five-year history of Web video.
Matt Cutler, vice-president for marketing and analytics at Visible Measures, said the level of interest was “off the charts”.
“On TV, watching the content is the end of the experience. Online, watching the content is the beginning of the experience,” Cutler said. The history of viral videos has shown that when new clips about a subject become available—in Boyle’s case, her new performance on Sunday—it “actually boosts the viewership of the existing assets”, he said.
Six hours after the new performance, dozens of copies were already circulating on YouTube. ©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Miguel Helft contributed to this story.