YouTube’s Chief Business Officer Reveals New Original Content Strategy and Talks Brand Safety

Plus, Adweek’s surprising role in the company’s decision to offer its original programming for free

YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl's upfront messaging: "Prime time is personal." YouTube
Headshot of Jason Lynch

One year ago, YouTube made its biggest splash yet on the scripted originals front with Cobra Kai, its revival of the Karate Kid franchise. The company said the series’ first episode received more than 50 million views in its first five months. But despite that show’s success, the company has quietly shifted its original content strategy during the past year—and decided to offer all its future original programming for free, with ads, instead of restricting it to subscribers of its YouTube Premium services.

Ahead of tonight’s Brandcast NewFronts event, YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl spoke for the first time about YouTube’s new original content plans, Adweek’s surprising role in the company’s decision to make its original shows ad-supported, its sports streaming strategy and the company’s latest efforts to address its ongoing brand safety problems.

What is your upfront messaging going into Brandcast?
Kyncl: That prime time is personal. I know it’s a simple message, but when you think about it, prime time always used to be a scheduled appointment, whether it was Thursday night or Sunday night at 9 p.m. What has happened over the last 10 or 15 years is with the proliferation of content from the internet and the ability to create and consume much more diverse and broad content, suddenly people are able to get deeply personalized experiences. For them, the time when they’re most engaged and most happy is when they’re in this personal zone and consuming the content they like. When you work in platforms like ours, you live it every day, but we never thought about it until this year, when we stepped away and realized that prime time truly has become personal. That wasn’t possible on TV, because you have 24 hours to fill and you can’t deliver a personal experience. But on a platform like YouTube, you can. And that leads you to a diversity and richness of content offering that we deliver to our viewers all around the world.

Before we get into the original content strategy, what is YouTube’s overall content strategy right now?
Our content strategy is to deliver as broad a set of programming to our users as possible so that we can deliver on the promise of prime time being personal. Without a diverse set of programming, we couldn’t do that. When you think about the way content strategy used to work on TV, it was always very narrow around some kind of programming voice that each TV channel had to stand for. But when you think about the online platforms, the content strategy is really surrounding personalization, the ability to deliver users what they seek and what will keep them most happy.

In our case, the thing that is driving this diversity and richness is YouTube creators. There are many different content platforms, most of whom are mostly either repurposing content from television or producing the same content that’s on television or in movie theaters. In our case, we’ve ushered an era of creativity that’s much different. YouTube creators are the majority of YouTube’s consumption artists and are a very significant portion of YouTube’s consumption. So when you think about our strategy, it is focusing on creators and artists and their ability to find their audience and their ability to monetize that engagement, and that makes us different from everyone else. We also do work with media companies and we have a lot of their content, but what is driving our platform, what is most of our consumption, is creators and artists. So, we’re leaning into that across many different genres and verticals.

A year ago, Cobra Kai debuted, and Adweek featured the show on the cover of our NewFronts issue. How has your strategy with regard to YouTube originals changed since then?
The Adweek [cover] is my favorite [Cobra Kai] mention. To me, it was incredibly funny and interesting that this content that wasn’t even ad supported was on the cover of Adweek. That got us to thinking that maybe we should alter our strategy and lean into what we do every day and what we do best. So, one of the changes that we’ve gone through is to align our originals with the way YouTube works, which is everything is available free, and everything is available behind a paywall if there are certain features that you value in order to pay for a [YouTube Premium] subscription. With originals, we’ve gone from being focused on driving subscriptions to aligning with the core business. That is a shift that takes a while to execute because we have a production pipeline in flight for a little bit over a year and it’s difficult to change things in flight, but anything new will have this strategy. When you do that, you start aligning with what YouTube creators and what YouTube itself is best at.

Which is what?
That led us to three different pillars. The first programming pillar is around learning. We have a billion educational views on YouTube. I’m using the word learning to not just mean strictly math education, but you’re coming to YouTube to expand your knowledge and there’s a lot of “how-to” videos that are incredibly interesting and a lot of people are finding very useful. For us to lean into that category is very unique because we don’t see others doing that at all.

The second one is music. We’re very, very strong in music. You can see all kinds of examples of K-pop and Latin sensations and Taylor Swift and up and comers all succeeding through YouTube. You see us doing lots of different projects, whether they‘re livestreams of big festivals like Coachella or a documentary on Lou Pearlman or Ariana Grande.

Then, the third pillar is what we call personalities. What that really means is for us to work with trailblazing creators, whether they’re creators who have grown up on YouTube and became really successful like Liza Koshy or Joey Graceffa, or whether it’s a creator who might not have been on YouTube but they have some kind of an interesting angle connecting them to YouTube. So, it’s these three buckets of learning, music and personality that we’re leaning into with our originals.

"With originals, we’ve gone from being focused on driving subscriptions to aligning with the core business."

Cobra Kai, which just came back from Season 2, doesn’t necessarily fit into any of those. Is there is still room for existing shows like Cobra Kai as you execute this broader pivot?
There was one thing that I forgot to mention as part of the third bucket: it’s personalities and IP [intellectual property] that resonates on YouTube. And Cobra Kai was that IP. Us doing the series was largely informed by incredible consumption of clips related to Karate Kid on YouTube. Step Up [Step Up: High Water, which aired its second season in March] was another great example. Dance on YouTube is huge. So either we work with trailblazing creators or we work with IP that we see working on YouTube.

With that switch to making everything ad supported, what new opportunities does that provide for marketers?
The trend you see in the market today is every media company racing to put up a paywall and put much of the content behind it, which means with every year, there will be less and less opportunity to put advertising next to content. What you see us doing is running in the opposite direction. That’s because that is our business, and advertisers and brand builders are our partners; they are the ones enabling this incredible creative community that thrives on YouTube. So while everybody is running left, we’re running right.

Some of the shows you’re pivoting away from in this new content iteration had been ones championed by YouTube’s global head of original content Susanne Daniels. Is there still a place for her at YouTube with your new content strategy for originals?
The answer is yes. All of the things that I mentioned are the things that Susanne and her team developed. Every part of the three pillar strategy is owned by Susanne and her team and they’re executing against it. She’s excited about it, and the reason for that is, it’s not fun to do the thing that everyone else does. It’s much more fun to do something that’s unique to you, that has a much greater chance of success and is bringing a lot more joy to the world than “step and repeat.” I think with our new strategy we have found that rhythm and the team is quite energized by it.

This week, YouTube announced a new deal with Major League Baseball to stream 13 games later this season. As streaming services have been trying to get a toehold in broadcasting the biggest sports leagues, do you see this deal as a stepping stone to doing even more live sports on the platform?
For many years, YouTube has been the home of highlights for some of the world’s biggest sports, whether it’s soccer, American football, baseball or basketball. What we’re doing with this partnership with MLB is building up basic capabilities around live streaming of big sporting events, monetization and audience creation. We’ve done this a long time ago with the Red Bull Stratos jump [in 2012]—Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a rocket and we had millions of people watching it at the same time. We’ve been doing it for seven or eight years with Coachella very successfully in the music space. So, this is really just merging of our highlights program in sports and live streaming mostly around music, and seeing where it takes us. We like to experiment and this is a great way for us to learn and lean into it together with our partners at MLB, and see where it takes us. It’s hard to predict anything for the future, but it’s certainly exciting to be in the partnership.

"Responsibility is our No. 1 priority, because we know that is table stakes for everyone."

Brand safety has been a major theme at this year’s NewFronts, and that has been a recurring problem for YouTube in a variety of ways, including after the New Zealand shooting in March. As you’ll be meeting with advertisers at Brandcast, what are you doing to address brand safety and tackle the ongoing issues with hate speech and conspiracy theories on the platform?
Responsibility is our No. 1 priority, because we know that is table stakes for everyone. This is something that we have been spending a lot of time on and huge amounts of effort over the last few years. There’s two different ways to tackle it: one with human efforts and the other with machine learning. We’ve brought a number of people working on brand safety to 10,000 people. And on the machine learning front, we’ve continued to invest into it and machines help us find and remove policy violating content at scale. The scale is important. Just in Q4 of last year, we removed 8.8 million videos for violating our policies. That’s an incredible number.

Today, 98% of the videos that we remove for violent extremism are flagged by our machine learning algorithm, which is, again, incredible on a platform like YouTube where [500 hours of video are uploaded every hour]. At that scale, it’s incredibly important to have a harmony of machines and people attacking the problems because machines can provide scale and people can provide context.

And the third piece of that [is] we need to keep on developing our policies and our products. Just in 2018, we had 30 updates to our policies, which is a lot because all of those have to be carefully thought out and worked through. It’s something that we take incredibly seriously, it’s a top priority, and we’re all focused on it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.