YouTube expected to reveal limited subscription option

NEW YORK — Newspapers have digital subscriptions. Record labels have iTunes and Spotify. And YouTube is about to have special programming for paying customers.

This week YouTube, the world’s largest video website, will announce a plan to let some video makers charge a monthly subscription to their channels. There will be paid channels for children’s programming, entertainment, music, and many other topic areas, according to people with knowledge of the plan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they had been asked by YouTube not to comment publicly yet. Some of the channels — there will be several dozen at the outset — will cost as little as $1.99 a month.

If the subscription option catches on, it could herald a huge change for the online video industry, which has subsisted almost entirely on advertising revenue. It could give producers of Web video series a second source of revenue, analogous in some ways to the flexible pay walls that some newspapers and magazines have adopted. It could also put more pressure on the cable television industry, which is fighting off fresh competition from the Web.


For now, though, it is just a test, intended in part to mollify some of the most popular contributors to the sprawling website. The overwhelming majority of videos on YouTube, a unit of Google, will remain free to all. But some homegrown YouTube stars, start-ups, and major media companies have been frustrated by what they see as relatively low amounts of revenue coming from the ads that YouTube attaches to their videos. By enabling the subscription option, YouTube is giving them another way to profit from their work — if their fans are willing to pay to watch, that is.

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Some of YouTube’s partners planned to start promoting their paid channels on Thursday, though the announcements could come sooner, in light of recent news coverage. (The Financial Times reported Sunday that the announcements were expected as early as this week.) YouTube will process the payments through Google Wallet, the system that Google’s app store uses.

As YouTube users read about the plan on Monday, many objected to paying for something they treat as free and ubiquitous as air and water. But others said there were some channels worth paying a few bucks for.

A YouTube spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of the subscription plan. In a statement the company said, ‘‘We have nothing to announce at this time, but we’re looking into creating a subscription platform that could bring even more great content to YouTube for our users to enjoy and provide our partners with another vehicle to generate revenue from their content, beyond the rental and ad-supported models we offer.’’

“It’s a worthy experiment,’’ said Laura Martin, a senior analyst at Needham & Co., who has advocated for dual revenue streams for all manner of media companies. She said Hulu Plus and The New York Times’ online subscriptions were two successful models for producers who might try paid channels.