By Miguel Helft, senior writer July 24, 2013: 12:52 PM ET
Executives from CBS and NBC debate the future of television in a YouTube world.
FORTUNE — Is YouTube ushering the era of Cable 2.0 – a world where channels go from hundreds to thousands and where real and professional content businesses are being built in the platform?
The similarities between YouTube and the early days of cable are striking, said Lauren Zalaznick, executive vice president, media innovation and cross platform initiatives at NBC Universal. Speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., Zalaznick said just like the early days of cable, the content on YouTube looks amateurish, the conventional wisdom is that advertisers will never go there in force, and people complain there is too much choice. “That was true 30 years ago,” Zalaznick said, referring to the early days of the cable industry.
The big difference? Money. Finances were “very strong at the beginning of the cable era,” she said. In contrast, the content businesses being birthed on YouTube (GOOG) are on more shaky footing, she said. Yet, to ignore YouTube as a serious platform for content creators would be foolish. “When there is that much energy about audience consumption, you have to be there.”
Zalaznick’s remarks echoed the themes of Fortune’s next cover story, “How YouTube Changes Everything,” which I wrote and will publish online on Thursday.
Zalaznick shared the stage with Jim Lanzone, the president of CBS Interactive (CBS), who acknowledged that YouTube accounts for a fast growing portion of media consumption, especially for younger people. But Lanzone said that just like TV didn’t kill radio and movies didn’t kill TV, YouTube and online video is not about to damage the television business, which remains strong. “At the end of that day, in some way consumers are finding time in all of this,” Lanzone said.
Both Lanzone and Zalaznick are charged with leading their companies into the digital age. Both said digital is already mainstream at both companies and becoming so more every day.
When asked which company they were most afraid of, Lanzone said Apple (AAPL), which is becoming an increasingly important gatekeeper for distribution on mobile devices. Zalaznick, for her part, singled out Nielsen, in part because of its own shortcomings in adapting quickly enough to the digital age so it can accurately measure viewership in different environments.