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YouTube goes long

The popular video site is experimenting with full-length video to attract more advertisers.

By Devin Leonard, senior writer
Last Updated: June 20, 2008: 9:07 AM EDT

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YouTube likes to tout how two directors of its longer videos have scored television deals as a result of their exposure on the site.

(Fortune) -- At first glance, "Harold Buttelman, Daredevil Stuntman" appears to be typical YouTube farce. It's a video about a small town tuxedo salesman who thinks he's the next Evel Knievel. He's mistaken, of course.

But if you look closer, there's a big difference between "Harold Buttelman, Daredevil Stuntman" and a standard YouTube video like "Tiger vs. Bear." The animal battle is less than two minutes long. "Harold Buttelman" lasts for an hour and 35 minutes. It's also racked up more than 1.1 million views since it appeared last July. Who knew YouTube patrons could sit still for so long?

YouTube has only posted a handful of such lengthy videos. But we'll probably see a lot more. YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen clearly want the site to be more than just a destination for clips of skateboarding dogs, experiments involving Mentos and Diet Coke, and the occasional Simpson episode that needs to be taken down immediately because of copyright infringement. So, undoubtedly, does Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), YouTube's owner.

So Hurley and Chen are testing longer videos that are potentially more attractive to Madison Avenue. There are only so many ads you can put in "Tiger vs. Bear." "Harold Buttelman," on the other hand, is a much bigger canvas for advertisers. "This would enable YouTube to offer more ads per view," says Richard Doherty, director of the Envisioneering Group, a Long Island, N.Y.-based technology consulting company.

YouTube spokeswoman Julie Supan is coy about the site's plans for long-form video. She stresses that Hurley and Chen have yet to decide if there's really a future for such videos on YouTube. "We've always believed that short form is why people come to YouTube," she cautions. "But as we test full-length content, we are starting to see that the audience is potentially there."

YouTube's actions, however, speak louder than its words. It is courting independent directors this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, a showcase for their work. The site is even making what it touts as a major announcement at the event on Wednesday. (YouTube declined to discuss any details before the announcement.)

The company also makes a big deal about how two directors of its longer videos have scored television deals as a result of their exposure on YouTube. "Harold Buttelman's" Francis Stokes, for instance, got a development deal with the Sci-Fi Channel. The Documentary Channel also bought "10 mph," a movie shown on YouTube about Hunter Weeks and Josh Caldwell, two aspiring filmmakers who quit their jobs to drive a Segway across the United States. (A spokeswoman for the Documentary Channel confirmed the deal, but she said it has nothing to do with "10 mph's" 436,394 views on YouTube.) What better way to get the attention of the next Quentin Tarantino?

This makes perfect sense. YouTube has had trouble getting much more than clips from Hollywood. Showtime Network, however, recently posted an entire episode of The Tudors, its series about romance and bloodletting in Elizabethan England, on YouTube to promote the new season. "They were so excited about it," says Rob Hayes, Showtime's senior vice president for digital media. "They actually put it up on their home page as their featured video."

But the Showtime episode was an exception. That's because YouTube has a strict policy of not paying for content. Instead, the site offers its partners a share of the ad revenues sold against their content on the site. That's not very compelling for the big broadcast networks. So, for the most part, they are building their own video sites. ABC is focused on ABC.com. Fox and NBC have launched Hulu.

But none of them have YouTube's audience. According to Nielsen, the site had 69 million visitors last month. Ironically, YouTube executives even talk like their broadcast peers these days. "You want to work with us because the one thing that we have that is becoming rarer and rarer in this world of fragmentation is a big audience," Jordan Hoffner, YouTube's head of content partnership, told Fortune a few months ago.

Now all YouTube needs is more ad revenue. If Hurley and Chen succeed, they can thank "Harold Buttelman, Daredevil Stuntman." He may be not next Evel Knievel. But somebody had to take the first step. To top of page

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