Spring 2016

Susanne Daniels: 
The New YouTube

YouTube Global Head of Original Content Susanne Daniels is developing new programming for subscribers. Will the famously free service now challenge other SVOD platforms?

1. YouTube has started an SVOD platform called YouTube Red for $10 a month. What do you get for that?

YouTube Red is a subscription platform that has three elements to it. There is an ad-free YouTube experience, and then for the entertainment aspect there is a music program much like Spotify, and there is YouTube Originals, which is the original-content division I’m the head of.

2. What kind of programming is YouTube Originals looking to create?

There was a lot of thought that went into the type of originals that we were going to offer. We thought a lot about the fact that the YouTube audience is used to getting certain things for free. So one factor in determining programming that viewers felt was worthwhile was giving them something they couldn’t normally get on YouTube or on their favorite YouTuber’s channel. For example, you can get short sketches and short comedy bits and short to-camera interviews by [YouTube star] Lilly Singh on her channel. But what you can’t get, and what you will find on YouTube Red, is an original show that she put together from a 30-city tour. So I see creating content that features YouTube stars and well-known actors together. But I don’t see creating content without any YouTube stars. We’re thinking of reality series, scripted series, half hour, hour, as well as movies. I think there is room for premium content from top producers. You can do shows that appeal to an 18-to-34 audience but have a young slant. I think that is what you will see us do.

3. Do you see YouTube Red competing with other SVOD platforms such as Netflix and Hulu?

I don’t for the most part, because we are doing something different. We are fishing where the fish are. We are working with the talented YouTube stars where their audience is used to watching them and supporting them. So they are rooting for their next adventure on YouTube Red. And we are also not out there licensing libraries and content from traditional players, which is obviously what they do.

4. Is part of the goal of YouTube Originals to improve the quality and the production values normally seen on YouTube?

Yes, in the sense that we are giving YouTube stars more resources and experienced producing support than they have had before. That will be one of the distinguishing features between YouTube Originals and what you might normally see on YouTube.

5. Does this mean you’ll be using more professional crews and doing more DGA projects?

I think it depends on the project, and it’s on a project-by-project basis. Some projects might have the smaller homegrown crews that the YouTube star is used to working with. But we are just giving them more money to play with, and in many cases we are working with DGA talent, and I feel we are upping the ante in terms of production values by doing so. [For instance,] Barbara Kopple is already directing a feature-length documentary, about trans vlogger [and YouTube star] Gigi Gorgeous.

6. Do you view YouTube Originals as a training ground for talent, including directors?

I would argue that [free] YouTube is a training ground, but not Red. YouTube is a place that has a very do-it-yourself spirit, as anyone can create something and upload it. It is part of the democratic nature of YouTube. As a platform, it is wildly varied and diverse in every way. It is easy to tap into diversity on YouTube because it just exists all over the platform. And with the unparalleled access to equipment that people have today to produce their own content, the level of talent and quality is impressive. So I think of YouTube, if you will, as a training ground and then YouTube Originals as the best of.

7. What attributes do you look for when you’re hiring directors?

One of the things that I have been really impressed with since I got to YouTube, and I found to be different in positive ways, is the talent of your typical actor or actress. YouTube talent have experience interacting with their fans and know what resonates with them and what doesn’t. They know the kind of material that is successful. So one of the things that I am looking for with directors is someone who can respect that about YouTube stars, who will come to the table through a mutual respect of what the YouTube stars can bring as their point of view and what they can contribute to that creative piece.

8. You came to YouTube Originals after developing programming for MTV, the WB, and Lifetime. What was your biggest adjustment to working on an Internet platform?

I would say the biggest difference for me is that the tech world is a more heavily data-driven environment than the entertainment media world. What I mean by data-driven is that I don’t want to just choose a YouTube star to work with who has a proven algorithm that shows they have a lot of watch time. I want to work with a YouTube star who I believe is also a creative talent and has a great idea for a show. The ecosystem I work in here is quite different and quite unique. But the essence of what I am doing is still the same.

9. YouTube Red has been called a Netflix for millennials. Do you see your audience as potential cord-cutters or cord-nevers?

No, I think they are still watching a surprising amount of TV. I understand hundreds of thousands of them are cutting cords every year. I acknowledge the trend, but there is still a substantial amount watching television.

10. So how do you think we will be watching TV in 10 years?

I think more people will be watching on mobile. We won’t think of it as broadcast vs. cable vs. Xbox vs. black box. I think it will all just be different content layers, and strong brands will win. Channels like the Food Network and HGTV and Travel Channel. Lifetime has a very strong brand [and] MTV had a very strong brand at one point. Weak brands that try and be a catchall and try and be everything [for everyone] are just going to be places where people show up for the show and nothing else, and I don’t think that can sustain as a long-term model for a channel. I think it is really important to have a strong brand to survive.

(Photo: Courtesy YouTube)

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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