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hiawatha bray | tech lab

Vessel is banking on our video addiction

We’re all watching more video than ever, and it’s YouTube’s fault.

Americans viewed an average of 5¼ hours of video per day in 2013, according to the market research firm eMarketer. And this year, we’re supposed to break 5½ hours. But not because we’re watching the regularly scheduled kind pumped out by local stations, national networks, and cable channels. We’ve cut back slightly on that.

All the growth is in Internet video, the kind viewed on PCs, smartphones, and tablets. The average Yank spent an hour per day last year watching this stuff, up from 21 minutes in 2011. And it just keeps growing. Thanks to YouTube, we’re all trained to enjoy the occasional brief video break. I’m a sucker for movie trailers and “Three Stooges” shorts, myself.


But is anybody a big enough sucker to pay for this stuff?

Some big investors think so. They’ve ponied up $58 million to launch a video service called Vessel, for which fans will pay $3 a month to get first looks at exciting short videos.

That’s the secret sauce, right there. Vessel will show the same stuff that will eventually appear on YouTube or other short video sites, but three days sooner, leaving YouTubers to twiddle their thumbs for 72 hours.

Vessel is just one of many companies snatching at that YouTube audience. Some are giants. Facebook, for instance, has let people post videos for years, but the feature is suddenly catching on. The company says viewership soared from three billion videos per day in January to four billion per day in April.

The popular messaging service Snapchat also wants in on the action. Snapchat Discover, a free feature added in January, lets you instantly watch video snippets from major media companies, including CNN, the Daily Mail, ESPN, and Comedy Central. With Discover, media companies can purchase instant access to Snapchat’s 100 million users; in exchange, the users get snappy little glimpses at news, sports, humor, and gossip, with fresh material posted every day.


Anyone can see what Facebook and Snapchat have in mind. But what are they thinking at Vessel? Who would pay for early access to “Charlie bit my finger?” Then I recalled the surge of almost lustful joy in November as I watched the first trailer for the new “Star Wars” film. Would I have paid a mere three bucks to see that three days early, at the same time as millions of other nerds? Oh, yes.

Now create a whole roster of hot entertainment options. A sneak peak at the next episode of the massively popular show “Empire”? Or the next video from Taylor Swift, available only to Vessel subscribers for the first three days? Ring up a few dozen such deals, and there’s your business model.

Vessel shares its revenue with the video creator, just like YouTube, but promises a bigger cut. But not just anybody can post videos at Vessel. You’ve got to apply for the privilege, show some high-quality work, and promise to keep the videos coming. The whole idea is to identify talented regulars who will keep subscribers coming back.

YouTube has created a horde
of online stars: comedian Jenna Marbles; the foul-mouthed video game master PewDiePie; and FunToyzCollector, a Brazilian woman who just makes videos of herself playing with toys. Unfamiliar names? Not to the millions of fans worldwide who view the videos. But YouTube’s new media legends are scattered amongst millions of pirated movie clips and cat videos. Vessel looks to create an all-star service, serving up nothing but the hits.


Clearly, it will take a while. Since its launch in late March, Vessel has put up plenty of video material, much from very respectable sources like The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and the Discovery Channel. But it’s all stuff I could have found on YouTube. I haven’t seen anything yet for which I’d be willing to pay.

This isn’t a fatal flaw in such a new service. If it can sign some movie studios, TV networks, and top music acts, Vessel will have it made. If not, it will sink fast.

And the rest of us will hardly notice. After all, there’s always YouTube.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.