A Very Brief History of Web Video

From lonelygirl15 to billions of viewers

December 1995-January 1999

After seeing Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s short Spirit of Christmas, TV exec Brian Graden commissions a second video he distributes to friends on VHS. The video—and Graden—help Parker and Stone land a development deal at Comedy Central that gives rise to South Park. Soon the video starts turning up in unexpected places, notably as an AVI file on the PlayStation game Tiger Woods ’99. From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to bulletin boards and burnable CDs.

January 1997

Macromedia acquires Jonathan Gay’s startup FutureSplash and shortens the name to Flash. It becomes the standard for Web video, though Microsoft and Apple continue to use proprietary formats. Competitor RealNetworks suffers. Adobe buys Macromedia in 2005.

February 2005

Three former PayPal employees, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, start a video-sharing website enabling users to upload, share and view videos. They call it YouTube. Because of South Park’s popularity, it and plenty of material from other TV series become the most popular kind of content on the video portal (and fodder for a massive and ongoing lawsuit) since most users don’t have digital cameras to film their cats. Yet.

February 2006

Motorola releases the Razr MS500, the first version of the trendy phone to include a video camera. The innovation proves extremely popular—much to the chagrin of Seinfeld star Michael Richards, who the following November is filmed at L.A.’s Laugh Factory hurling ethnic slurs at hecklers.

June 2006

Vlogger “Bree,” who calls herself lonelygirl15 (pictured here), starts posting videos to YouTube about life as a teen, but then begins dropping hints about her family’s involvement in a cult-like organization. It’s a hoax (the producers go on to found social media marketing company EQAL), but viewers don’t seem to care. Lonelygirl15 runs for 547 episodes, and by November Law & Order: Criminal Intent airs an episode loosely based on her.

October 2006

Google purchases YouTube for $1.65 billion, “brushing aside copyright concerns to seize a starring role in the online video revolution,” according to the AP. The following March, Viacom files suit against Google, alleging “brazen” and “massive” copyright infringement. The suit is ongoing.

September 2007

Pew Research reports that broadband penetration in the U.S. hits 50 percent. Smartphone use skyrockets, too, with 50 percent of mobile users using their phones for email, up from 19 percent the previous year.

March 2008

Three major entertainment conglomerates form a distribution platform of their own: Hulu, which distributes content—all ad-supported—from Disney, NBCUniversal and News Corp. The site launches March 12, 2008. By 2010, it’s able to charge for the privilege.

February 2009

With the success of the streaming service it added in 2007, Netflx reaches 10 million subscribers, prompting it to reevaluate its business model. It starts gently nudging consumers toward the digital-only experience (which is much more cost-effective for Netflix) and by September 2011 decides to restructure so DVDs are sent out by a subsidiary called Qwikster and users are charged more for the same service. The plan goes over like a lead balloon, and Netflix abandons the Qwikster idea after a month. It still loses 800,000 subscribers.

June 2009

Apple releases the iPhone 3GS, the first version with native video capability. Previous iPhones could be hacked and modified to shoot video, but from this point on the feature comes standard.

June 2009-October 2011

Among the most important images from coverage of contested elections in Iran in 2009 is the YouTube video of a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, dying of a gunshot wound. Protests, demonstrations and full-blown civil wars begin across the Arab world, and guerillas post footage of battles with police, the military and each other. Shaky cell-cam video chronicles all of it, up to and including several videos of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi as he is captured, beaten and killed.

October 2009

Google launches its own smartphone to compete with the iPhone, called the Droid. The search giant creates its own OS, called Android, to compete with Apple’s iOS. It’s based on Linux and easy to code for, which also makes content owners leery of building apps for it at first, fearing piracy.

April 2010

Steve Jobs announces the iPad, making the difference between standard-def and HD video noticeable on a device that uses a cell-tower network. It sells like gangbusters. It does not support Flash.

September 2010

Blockbuster files for bankruptcy.

April 2012

At a series of “NewFront” presentations designed to woo ad buyers away from traditional TV, YouTube announces it will put $100 million into new video content. The investment grows YouTube’s viewer base among demographics— notably women—who weren’t surfing its various feeds before. But there’s little to generate buzz, and as a result ad dollars don’t move.

July 2012

K-pop artist Psy’s single Gangnam Style, in which the South Korean rapper dances like he’s riding an invisible horse, becomes the first YouTube video to top 1 billion views. It stands at 1.53 billion and counting.

February 2013

Amid great fanfare, Netflix premieres original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and executive produced by Zodiac and The Social Network director David Fincher. It’s the first of several high-profi le originals for the company, including an upcoming series from the directors of The Matrix and a much-anticipated revival of Fox’s late, great sitcom Arrested Development, set for May 26.



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