YouTube’s Screen Stealer

Something's distinctly different about this "aerial" still frame.

Yesterday, I had the YouTube app open on my Apple TV in my office. I went to do something else, and when I looked back it wasn’t the Apple TV aerial screensaver, but a YouTube app “screen saver” with a slideshow of heavily compressed still images.

The Apple TV in my living room had an older version of the YouTube app (presumably from April 2nd if the dates in the version names are to be believed.) That version didn’t try to override my screensaver like the one in my office.

It seems the YouTube app, if the app is open, will start a screensaver slideshow of generic still images taken from videos if there isn’t a video that I’ve paused.

Look at the compression shred this still.

If there is a paused video it will be a slideshow of the YouTube thumbnail art endlessly zooming in, fading to black, and starting over.

Some of the worst sins of mankind exist in YouTube thumbnails, and they’re not designed to be screensavers.

You know what is designed to be a screensaver? The Apple TV’s aerial screensaver. Far and away the most lauded feature of the Apple TV platform. Beloved by all (except people that get creeped out by jellyfish) and yet replaced by either chunky-compressed stills from drone footage, or looping thumbnails.

To top it all off, it has static, white text (famously the best to use for screensavers) for video details, static YouTube logo, and a graphic for the directional pad, indicating that pressing the top will start playing the video being used in the screensaver. If you have an older Apple TV in your house (my office Apple TV is the 4th gen one) with the awful touchpad you can even trigger it when you try and pick up the remote from the furniture.

UPATE: Thomas did some further testing of his own, and apparently the fake screensaver will show media controls on devices you have connected to your TV (iPhone for a remote). According to him, if you let the fake screensaver keep running it will eventually revert to the Apple TV screensaver, and then the Apple TV will sleep.

YouTube’s not the first company to “innovate” in the screensaver space, and it’s not exclusive to the Apple TV. A few years ago my boyfriend had a set-top box that would initial start a slideshow of ugly nature photos, and then after a while they started dropping in ads into the slideshow.

I fully expect YouTube’s aim here is to capitalize on all this “free” real estate and start sliding in ads, promoting specific videos from partners, or showcasing movies available to rent or buy. I know that’s cynical, but so is YouTube as a business.

Setting that aside, I pay for YouTube Premium because the ads are so awful I can’t stand them, but because there’s some pretense of this being a screensaver I still get these slideshows that are the future home of ads for other people.

On April 4th, Janko Roettgers published a piece about a recent Roku patent filing about injecting ads over the source input feed when the source input feed is paused. The patent also says the display device will discern content and context to place a relevant ad over the paused video stream.

As Janko points out, Roku already monetizes screensavers on its platform. Feel free to peruse Roku’s site where they brag about chunks of the screen they’re willing to sell.

I don’t think advertising, in the abstract, is evil. I do, however, think it’s insidious to inject advertising into every pore —especially when those pores don’t belong to you, like when you’re the YouTube app, not even a platform.

Screen Saved

If you want to bypass the YouTube app change, I heard from Rob Bhalla on Mastodon that if you change the screensaver to start at 2 minutes, instead of the Apple TV’s default 5 minutes, then the Apple TV’s screensaver kicks in before the YouTube one and you never see theirs. Thanks to YouTube not having any screensaver controls, and no idea what your actual screensaver settings on the Apple TV are, they hard coded in a start time just prior to the default 5 minutes.

That’s how you know it’s really there to help improve user experience, and not just a craven money grab by absolute hacks.

Sure, they might change this to start even earlier. In which case, we’re at the mercy of Apple to protect customer experience. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. App Store rejections are for indie devs, and people trying to skirt giving Apple money, not YouTube overriding the screensaver.

2024-04-12 02:30:00

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