Would you pay to see YouTube videos by your favorite star 72 hours before the rest of his or her subscribers?
That’s the gamble taken by Vessel, Jason Kilar’s video subscription service that opened in beta to consumers today. The platform has made waves in the digital video space since its inception in 2013, but now that it’s open for business, it faces its first real test.
In November 2014, Kilar began offering lucrative contracts to popular YouTube creators who signed up with the system to offer their videos with a three-day window for Vessel subscribers before they went on free, ad-supported platforms. The announced slate of participating creators at launch is a who’s-who of YouTube talent, including Rhett & Link, Shane Dawson, Anna Akana, Epic Meal Time, Connor Franta, Nerdist Industries, and Jack Vale, among others. Guarantees reportedly range from $2 million to $4 million for videos uploaded over 18 to 36 months. Other incentives for creators include an estimated $25 CPM that far outranks YouTube for ads, as well as a bounty per users for creators who turn their fans into paying subscribers to the system.
All in all, that makes Vessel a great potential payday for the creator, but the question here is whether consumers, who are used to experiencing their short form, YouTube content for free, will be willing to shell out $2.99 a month simply to see content that will eventually be free on other platforms.
Vessel creator Kilar is the force behind the creation of Hulu, which faced its own naysayers but now regularly has consumers paying $7.99 a month to watch a combination of original content and already-aired television shows. The difference there is the price-point for Hulu as access to TV shows is a lower threshold than the price of a cable package, and access is delayed by a day instead of accelerated. Still, for many cord-cutters, Hulu is a money-saving option, especially for economically strapped young viewers. Those same young people may prefer the same option for their normally free YouTube videos: simply wait three days and save the $2.99 Vessel subscription.
On the other hand, many YouTubers command legions of hyper-dedicated fans for whom waiting three days is virtually inconceivable. The fandom conversation will have passed them by, and they’ll be left out of in-jokes, GIF sets, and avenues for conversation with their favorite creators as they wait for the exclusivity window to expire. However, many fandoms have found their ways around blockades to content—like geo-restricting, which allows only one region to watch a given video. The inclusion of Vessel in the roll-out for a video might increase the tendency for fans to rip and host their own versions of creator content for interested fans who can’t afford the $2.99 premium, decreasing potential ad revenue.
Vessel is not alone in trying to take on YouTube for video eyeballs and revenue, and YouTube is not taking the competition lightly. The company has reportedly offered bonuses to top YouTubers who agree to debut content only on their platform, although they can still post elsewhere after YouTube has first dibs. The move also hopes to starve off Facebook, which has recently made moves into the video space and courted YouTubers.
The success of Vessel will hinge on the creators it brings to the platform and those creators’ ability to convince fans that supporting them in this way will be a positive for everyone involved. For Vessel’s part, it sees its role not as taking on other video services but rather offering creators a more sustainable path to financial success, which in turn means they can create better and more elaborate content for hungry fans.
“We are ready for what will surely be an epic third act.” —Vessel founder Jason Kilar
“Despite the many positive things that the internet has made possible in media, to date there hasn’t been a clear path for most of these talented creators to build sustainable, enduring businesses on the basis of their video storytelling alone,” Kilar wrote in a blog post last month. “This is not just a creator problem – it’s a consumer problem too. Challenging economics constrain which ideas creators can afford to pursue. This means fans may never see a creator’s next big idea, or experience it in the way it was originally envisioned. Making things worse, some creators feel the need to “graduate” to another medium (e.g., traditional television) to make more money, leaving their digital audiences behind. In this process, the creator often cedes control and stops making the content fans want most.”
Consumers interested in trying out Vessel can request a beta invite on the site, which will give them one month free access before the subscription rate kicks in.
“Bringing positive change on this level won’t be easy, and we recognize that it won’t happen overnight,” Kilar wrote. “However, we have great conviction that we can help the internet deliver on its potential for consumers and creators. We take inspiration from the gifted storytellers and business leaders before us who traveled similar pioneering paths as they fashioned the film and television industries. We are ready for what will surely be an epic third act.”
Illustration by Max Fleishman