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Beyond Cat Videos

Is YouTube on the brink of becoming a programming star?
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Pickett, who’s in charge of finding and funding the up-and-coming talent, is a former F/A-18 fighter pilot who spent two years after Harvard Business School in management consulting at Booz Allen Hamilton. When he joined Google in 2004, it was to work on its business operations team. And by his own admission, he’s not a content kind of guy—his talents lie in the business strategies behind it. “I’m not creative,” he admits. What makes overseeing Next Lab easier, he says, is that “some of the guys [there] are. They’ve proven to be extremely valuable in terms of when we talk about engaging and programming on the platform.” And the good news, he adds, “is we have a ton of content from thousands of creators and the audience picks. The audience will always do a better job than I can do.”

That, essentially, is the standard Google line. As part of a company with its brain and history in search, YouTube is loathe to say it’s anything other than a simple video platform. But Kyncl and Pickett clearly are not just leaving it to the audience—they’re making editorial decisions. Recently, for example, to capitalize on food and fitness programming trends YouTube announced partner development programs called Next Chef and Next Trainer to groom talent for the site. 

“We certainly look at things like where are there areas of content we think could be further developed,” says Pickett. “But we’re

. . . doing this over all the different key genres where we see good traction from users.”

As for the premium content, Kyncl’s challenge is to convince people who have historically been skeptical of such video outlets to partner with the site.

“Generally, the technology industry [processes] abundant bits of information and gives that to consumers,” Kyncl says. “And the entertainment industry [tries] to figure out licensing of and withholding of content in a way that maximizes value. So it’s the world of scarcity and the world of abundance.” It’s showing established brands that you understand the difference, says Kyncl—and so understand the full value of their content—that helps them in their negotiations. 

“The traditional media companies have become incredibly good at figuring out various business models. . . . It’s merely incumbent upon a lot of the newcomers [like YouTube] to realize what the market values are for that content and approach those media companies with that,” says Kyncl. “And if they do, they’ll be met with favorable responses. [You have] to understand the market rate for what you’re trying to license.”

For the brands now partnering with YouTube, there’s another obvious upside. “I care about eyeballs and I care about scale,” says Shane Smith, co-founder and CEO of Vice Media, which is launching a YouTube channel. “I think it’s exciting. TV has gotten staid, and [doesn’t] do digital very well. A successful show gets a 1.5 on cable—a million-and-a-half households. What if you can get 100 million eyeballs? And get analytics about who they are that TV can’t tell you? Objectively, it’s no competition.”

Others, however, point out a major downside: While a traditional TV network spends nearly as much on promoting its shows as it does producing them, YouTube won’t be doing promotion at all. It won’t be buying billboards or TV spots, or doing any of the other things that get new shows noticed. And even if it were to decide tomorrow to start promoting its new content, it wouldn’t have the staff or infrastructure necessary to do so.

“There’s an upside in the television model that doesn’t exist in the model YouTube is trying to put forward,” says a producer who asked not to be named. “In television, it’s not the creator’s obligation to market the content and get the eyeballs. It’s a pact. NBC says, ‘We’re going to give you guys funding, you’re going to go out and produce the greatest half-hour comedy you possibly can.’ Nobody goes to J.J. Abrams and says ‘Go make Lost and also hand out fliers, let everyone know it’s going to be on ABC.’ In this situation everything is on the creator.”

A source at Google, however, who asked not to be named, said the company is rethinking its approach to promotion, but that it needs to prioritize. “We need to have the strategy in place,” he says, “and then we can tackle some of these concerns.”

Ultimately, however, these concerns strike at the heart of YouTube’s schizophrenic position:  its desire to remain the YouTube of old while simultaneously looking and behaving more and more like a major network.

Indeed, Kyncl and Pickett can insist all they want that they don’t oversee the  production of content in the same way, say, a Hollywood studio does. For instance, YouTube points out, they don’t give content producers notes. But there’s nothing in writing to prevent the company from deciding somewhere down the line that it needs to have more editorial control. Indeed, a source at Google says this is a gray area for now, the door is open to actual production notes, and that in the future YouTube could take a more active role.
Kyncl and Pickett “are the programming heads of a new MSO,” says Evan Shapiro, president of IFC and the Sundance Channel.  “They’re already making choices. And a year from now, they’ll know what’s working and what’s not. Just like NBC. . . . They’re in the world of fall seasons now. That’s the world they’ve chosen to be in.”