July 2, 2008 -- On YouTube, anyone can be a famous chef.
Actually, on YouTube anyone can be famous for doing almost anything. But cooking seems to be one of the most popular ways for amateurs and would-be Rachael Rays to become online personalities with their own "cooking shows."
Call it Me TV. Depending on how you receive them, these productions also can be called webcasts or video blogs, diaries or podcasts. Whatever they're called, they're not just on YouTube (slogan: "Broadcast Yourself"), although it is the largest and best-known site where people share videos with the world.
Type "cooking show" in the YouTube search engine and it spits out 13,900 videos. Even if half of them can be dismissed as dopes messing around, that still leaves a lot of people going to the trouble of videotaping themselves making chicken curry or macaroni and cheese, with varying degrees of quality and professionalism, and even commercial sponsorship.
Hetal Jannu, 37, and Anuja Balasubramanian, 39, are two stay-at-home moms in a Dallas suburb who attract thousands of viewers a day for their year-old Indian-cuisine show, "Show Me the Curry", on YouTube.
Clueless about chutney? Confused about Indian spices and their uses? Who needs Martha or Rachael — just click on Hetal and Anuja. They're not professional chefs, but they have learned how to videotape themselves in their kitchens making simple, healthful South Asian dishes, slightly adapted for American palates, accompanied by easy-to-read charts and lasting just a few minutes (the rule in online video shows: the shorter the better). Still have questions? Send them a message or post your comments.
"The visual medium is better than any written recipe," Balasubramanian says. "We show how easy it is, step by step, well explained. And you can pull up the video 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so it's much more easily accessible" than shows on TV.
The access works both ways. "We could not do it without YouTube — the reach is phenomenal. We have viewers in countries we never heard of," she says. "How else can two people from Frisco, Texas, reach anyone?"
How, indeed. In the beginning, they say, their numbers were "pathetic." Now "Show Me the Curry" gets more than 15,000 viewers a day, and they're producing two videos a week. They're even picking up sponsors for the show and for their website, ShowMetheCurry.com, which helps offset their minimal costs. It's a new career for both — Jannu was a financial analyst, Balasubramanian a travel agent — but it allows them to work from home and be there when their kids get home from school.
"We have so much fun; it doesn't feel like work, it's such a blast," Jannu says. "We love to cook, and what's better than finding work you enjoy doing?"
Of course there's competition, some quite good, they say. There are nearly 800 videos just on "cooking curry" on YouTube.
The curry ladies are part of a much bigger phenomenon: the growth of Internet video shows and the diversity of entertainment offered on this new kind of TV, which some even watch on regular sets, hooked up to their computers. In just a few years, Internet TV has been transformed, with scores of professionally produced episodic shows, networks, ratings trackers, fans and TV Guide-style reviews.
The International Culinary Schools at the Art Institutes, a national system of culinary programs, has even started its own online show, ExploreCulinary.TV, touted as a "video cookbook" with culinary students preparing recipes from around the world.
"Online video started with people posting their video blogs; now it's everyone from people who never picked up a camera before, to film-school grads, to major film studios producing content specifically for the Web," says Josh Cohen, 26, a co-founder of Tilzy.TV, which tracks and reviews online programming.
The reasons for the growth include technological, financial and demographic factors, says Jim Louderback, chief executive of Revision3, an Internet TV network. Broadband speed is now fast enough to allow for high-quality videos online. The devices to watch those videos are better. More people under 30 are turning away from regular TV to watch Internet entertainment.
"Internet costs are so much lower — a tenth of the price of traditional TV — you can create programming focused on niche audiences and you don't need to be watched by millions to be profitable," Louderback says.
Scores of Average Joe content creators are discovering this. For most, a YouTube "channel" is the preferred platform because it's cheap and easy to track viewers and interact with them. The result is a wide variety of creative activity, ranging from making art to fixing leaky roofs to tasting wines to interviewing rock stars about what they like to eat.
"The 15 minutes of fame has become: You'll be famous to 15 people," or even 15 million, says self-taught wine expert Gary Vaynerchuk, whose daily wine-tasting webcast, "The Thunder Show" (WineLibrary.tv), on YouTube and elsewhere, has made him a genuine Internet star.
"Anyone with a little bit of charisma and good knowledge in their (specialty) has an enormous opportunity to explode. The karate expert, the lawn-mower expert, the babysitter who does a video show on proper babysitting techniques, she can become famous. We're in the gold-rush period of personal branding."
One of the advantages of the Internet to would-be online personalities is that they have total control over their own productions; there are no network suits telling them what (or what not) to do. "That inspires people to pay attention to the audience," says Spencer Crooks, spokesman for YouTube, which first noticed the popularity of cooking shows around the holidays last year.
Crooks says the high quality of some of the videos was a surprise. "But it doesn't have to be superb quality. Personality can really carry it," he says. "It's been amazing to watch people who have a passion connect with others who share that passion."
Jennifer Robbins of Providence loves indie-rock music and cooking, which led to "Cooking With Rockstars", which appears on YouTube and other video-hosting sites. Her monthly show features clips of band performances and her five-minute interviews with rockers about their cooking, even their culinary demonstrations in their kitchens.
"It's the intersection where my two passions meet," says Robbins, who considers herself more professional than the "masses" who use YouTube. She's hoping to eventually make money from her show. "If you're a serious content producer, you use other (video support) services, such as Blip.TV; they help promote you, you can opt to have advertising."
Solving people's problems
Some people are already making money, such as Tim Carter, 55, of Cincinnati, author of the syndicated newspaper column "Ask the Builder." Lately, however, he spends more time on his weekly YouTube show, "Ask the Builder", which presents short — two minutes, tops — tutorials on how to cope with leaky roofs or overflowing toilets. (His daughter, Meghan, 24, has her own show, too: "Ask the Decorator".)
"Those of us making high-quality content that solves people's problems will make a tremendous amount of money," he says, predicting that advertisers will eventually transfer more of the $65 billion spent annually on broadcast TV to Internet videos. "I'm not surprised by how big videos on the Internet have become because I saw it coming years ago. It is so much easier to show people something on video than writing about it."
Some online personalities, including Carter, believe the lines between online and regular TV will eventually blur; regular TV may even go the way of the dodo.
"This is the new frontier, a new land grab — eventually the (regular) TV business plan will fail and people 24 and under will not watch any TV," says Robert Barrett Jr., host of Cooking for Dads on YouTube.
If you're a YouTube viewer, "you can ask questions, make disparaging comments, put in your own tips," says Barrett. "Normal TV isn't interactive enough. On YouTube, you can fire back."
Viewers may not entirely abandon TV just yet, but soon, maybe in a decade, says wine maven Vaynerchuk.
"We the people are going to choose the outcome, and that's why the Internet will win."