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Will YouTube Ever Come Close to Rivaling Cable TV?

Google is spending more than $100 million to create original "channels" for YouTube, and this week it is expanding the model into Europe through deals with the BBC, FreemantleMedia, the Netherlands' Endemol and other media companies (see YouTube Preps 96 Channels With Original Content, YouTube Debuts Two Entertainment Channels and Lionsgate Flexes YouTube Fitness Channel).

Meanwhile, the Internet giant's stalled Google TV initiative is redoubling efforts to bring YouTube content to big-screen TVs, with the platform set to get enhancements for finding, managing and playing YouTube content through connected TVs and other devices.

But while the YouTube strategy mimics traditional cable TV in concept -- with a bouquet entertainment and news content targeted at specific audiences -- it's on a much, much smaller scale. It could take years before any online-only content attracts anything close to a TV-size audience, if that ever happens.

So far, about 20 of YouTube's original channels now average 1 million views per week, and around 25 channels have signed up 100,000 subscribers since launch, Alex Carloss, head of entertainment at YouTube/Google, said at the Multichannel News/B&CNext TV Summit last month (see Next TV Summit: Google's Carloss Outlines YouTube's 'Third Way').

One million viewers per week? That's perhaps a halfway decent showing for a single TV show on cable in primetime, and an abysmal figure for broadcast television networks.

Of course, it's unwise to count Google out here -- YouTube had an aggregate audience of 150.2 million unique visitors in August 2012, according to comScore. That's a bigger pool than all of U.S. TV households. And note that YouTube's content, unlike pay TV, is free to watch (at least for now, bandwidth-caps permitting).

But it still remains uncertain whether YouTube can make the leap to original programming on any sort of scale approaching regular TV.