From funny felines on film to broadcasting international events like the Olympics to the world, the engineers behind YouTube's impact on culture has been acknowledged with the pre-eminent award in television, the Emmy.
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is awarding five Technology and Engineering Emmys on Wednesday, including one to be given to YouTube. The academy, which has a history of being an early recognizer of engineering achievements, is tipping its hat to YouTube for the impressive volume of video processing that the site manages.
Giving YouTube an Emmy award for its infrastructure is arguably the biggest no-brainer recognition ever bequeathed unto the Internet.
Six billion hours of videos are watched by 1 billion people every month, according to YouTube's statistics. Every minute, YouTubers upload around 100 hours of video, said Jason Gaedtke, the engineering director of video infrastructure group at YouTube.
"It's great to receive acknowledgement on the Emmy," he said. "We're often the guys behind the scenes, keeping the lights on and making sure things are running."
YouTube earned the Emmy on the merits of its parallel media transcoding engine, "Hydra," its "Viper" processing framework, and its Content ID platform for allowing copyright holders to control and make money from their videos.
And make no mistake, Google makes an enormous amount of money off of YouTube. At least one analyst pegs around 10 percent of Google's revenue to YouTube (PDF), with around 25 percent of YouTube's sales strength coming from mobile.
As Google revealed in its quarterly earnings call last week, YouTube sees 40 percent of its traffic from mobile, up from 6 percent two years ago.
Gaedtke said that the success of YouTube is built on cross-department interactions. Internal YouTube teams, such as its video transcoding team, and storing and caching team, collaborate not only with each other but often involve the expertise of other Google divisions, such as marketing and analytics experts. "We bring in specialty knowledge as needed," he said.
Meanwhile, he explained what makes YouTube's Content ID system so unique.
"It's a large-scale fingerprinting engine for matching copyrighted content, a monetization engine, and also allows for takedown notifications," he said, noting that the work has to be done "very quickly, and at scale."
While the technology that powers YouTube is used to build and maintain an impressive and ever-growing collection of videos, Gaedtke was quick to say that what makes YouTube useful is that, in many ways, has become the Internet's de facto town square, a place where people congregate for communal experiences.
"Some of the most fulfilling experiences are seeing cultural events unfolding in real-time on YouTube," he said. Felix Baumgartner's near-space balloon jump in 2012 peaked at 8 million concurrent viewers, and used more than 5 terabits of network capacity, Gaedtke said.
Emmys are no stranger to technology
The engineering Emmys are nothing new and have been part of the award since they began in 1949, said John Leverence, the senior vice president for the Academy.
"We began by giving an Engineering Emmy to Charles Mesak for the phase finder, a device that was able to change black letters on a white screen to white letters on a black screen," he said.
Netflix won an engineering Emmy for streaming movies in 2012 before becoming the first online service to win a Creative Arts Emmy last month. Amazon.com also has won, for its video recommendations, and the television academy celebrated the technological achievements of cable TV in 1988, long before it recognized a high-quality show like the Sopranos for being delivered by those coaxial cables.
"Enabling technology achievements precedes content achievements," said Geoff Katz, a member of the primetime engineering Emmy Awards committee.
"These guys have changed what it means to watch video online," he said. "It's really an honor for the committee to be able to recognize that in such a big public form."
What's next for YouTube's engineers
The future of YouTube in the near term is solving some of the site's long-standing problems in an effort to make it easier for new users to upload videos, interact with fans, and, of course, sell ads that Google gets a cut from.
Gaedtke said that the engineering teams will be focusing on speed, resolution, and stability.
"We want streams to start instantly to reduce latency and improve startup time," he said.
The YouTube team also wants to be able to determine the correct resolution for a video instantly, so that high-definition streams are shown to people with devices and Internet pipelines that can support it, and improve the site's streaming reliability to minimize buffering.
Gaedtke refused to directly answer whether engineers were working on turning the fact that many people use YouTube as a streaming music service into something more like Pandora or Spotify, but he did say that YouTube was "tweaking the algorithm" of how the site's queries and indexes music videos.
Whatever YouTube plans to do in the near future, one thing's for certain: winning an Emmy is the traditional TV world acknowledging the importance of streaming video.
Correction, 11:30 a.m. PT: Felix Baumgartner's near-space balloon jump used 5 terabits of network capacity, not terabytes.