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Study Finds YouTube Is No. 1 Digital Destination for TV Shows. Wait, Really?

It’s certainly a surprising stat: More Internet users say they go to YouTube to watch TV shows than Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.com, according to research released this week.

About 38% of 2,400 consumers surveyed claimed they visit YouTube for TV shows, versus Netflix at 33%, Hulu at 17% and Amazon Prime Instant Video at 14%, according to research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. Results of the survey, conducted in June, were reported by CNET.

But how in the world can this possibly be true?

YouTube offers purchases of some current and recent TV shows, but it’s not comparable to the lineup of programming secured by SVOD services. The riddle may boil down to the fact that ordinary consumers may have an expansive idea of what a “TV show” is — encompassing everything from, say, ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” clips to made-for-digital series like “Video Game High School.”

In the U.S., YouTube offers multiple TV shows for purchase as a la carte episodes or full seasons. Top sellers include episodes of FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.” But it’s difficult to imagine that this is a huge draw for the videosite, whose biggest traffic generators are free clips. Meanwhile, rather than focusing on licensing TV shows or movies, YouTube wants to fund new projects from its top creators.

Asked about the survey’s findings, Magid president Mike Vorhaus noted that the study did not ask respondents about which particular shows they watched. But, he said, there are “a ton” of TV shows of all kinds on YouTube.

“I am not saying every consumer is always right about where they saw something or what they watched,” he said. But, he added, “if you look at YouTube you will find a huge array of TV shows — some recent U.S., some older, much older, some foreign, some full-length compilations.”

Maybe. But here’s a more likely explanation: People who said they’re watching “TV shows” on YouTube are actually watching clips from television programs or other related digital video bites, not full-length episodes.

The term Google uses for this bucket of content is “TV-related content.” And, according to the company, it’s a category that has been booming: Views of TV-related content on YouTube grew 35% in 2013 from the previous year, while time spent viewing TV-related content on the site increased 65% over that period.

Furthermore, per Google, the official promotional YouTube channels from cable and broadcast networks and shows — such as those for “The Ellen Show,” NBC’s “The Voice” and Comedy Central — saw subscribers increase 69% over the course of 2013 on average.

Branded TV shows on YouTube have the highest number of monthly views and subscribers of any entertainment category, more than twice that of sports, film and gaming, according to an analysis of more than 616,000 YouTube videos from 375 mainstream video providers by OpenSlate. And those audiences are drawn by short-form clips, per the research firm: “Ellen,” the No. 1 television show on YouTube with 6.4 million subscribers, posts 8-10 clips per day in-season and 1-2 clips per day in the off-season.

But does a two-minute clip from “Key & Peele” on YouTube count as a “TV show”? Without more granular data about what users are viewing on each platform, it’s a stretch to say that YouTube is the most popular digital platform for watching TV.

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