Susanne Daniels: How YouTube Red Will
Courtesy of Robert Voets

Before she left her job as president of MTV late last year, Susanne Daniels brought one of her three children with her to the network’s tentpole event, the Video Music Awards. She watched her then-13-year-old daughter, Charlotte — a representative of MTV’s target audience — pay little attention as celebrities milled around them on the red carpet.

“We passed one mega-star after another,” Daniels recalled in an interview last month at the Sundance Film Festival. “We were with the head of publicity and she was asking Charlotte, ‘Do you want to meet Scarlett Johansson?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you want to meet Will Ferrell?’ ‘No.’ And then all of the sudden she screams, and it’s Logan Paul. And I was like, ‘Who is that?'”

To fans of the social-video platform Vine, the 20-year-old Paul is the Ferrell of six-second video loops. He is a icon from a universe distant to the network that long prided itself as being the ultimate haven for adolescent entertainment.

Perhaps then it shouldn’t have come as much surprise in November when Daniels decamped MTV for YouTube, where she is now global head of original content. It was a stunning development; while there isn’t a more seasoned executive in Hollywood who has programmed to teen TV audiences more capably than Daniels between her stints at MTV and the WB, she was essentially exiting what’s formally perceived as the television business to move to the Internet world, a place where she’s had little experience beyond watching her children’s evolving media habits.

Daniels acknowledged she’s gone through something of a culture clash. “It is true that I have never heard the word ‘algorithm’ as much as I have heard it in the last three months,” she joked. “I had to get used to that.”

She came aboard to lead a division known as YouTube Originals, which was charged with providing better financing and production infrastructure to some of the site’s biggest stars, including the Fine Bros. and Smosh, to yield more ambitious projects. What didn’t become clear until December was that this programming was intended for a newly launched subscription arm of the site, YouTube Red, which hopes to command $10 per subscribers per month from a site that was heretofore almost entirely free.

Now YouTube is launching its first long-form scripted movies and series later this month, the first of what could be as many as 25 projects that get released in 2016. Still more are expected internationally with regional editions featuring creators from England, Japan, France, and Germany.

By volume alone, that merits calling YouTube Red a significant challenger to the incumbent subscription VOD players who are much farther along into their original programming efforts: Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. But whereas those networks are succeeding with programming indistinguishable from premium cable, YouTube is trying to break through with a slightly different strategy by sticking largely with the stars who are already on the platform doing a very different thing than what’s seen on TV.

On the one hand, it makes sense: Divert even a fraction of the massive YouTube audience willing to pay to see more content from the stars they already enjoy free, and you’ve got yourself a significant business. But on the other hand, these are stars who are being asked to do a style of programming they aren’t accustomed to doing. Such a transition is difficult enough for the endless amount of TV stars who have been thwarted trying to jump to movies (and vice versa); what YouTube is doing now seems like an even bigger leap.

But Daniels has faith that the hands-on experience YouTube creators have in all aspects of their craft — particularly with regards to audience feedback — gives them a unique sense of what their limitations are.

“I think YouTubers have the opportunity to choose well for themselves as they grow because, as opposed to actors who don’t always make the best choices with scripts, they understand why their audiences love them,” she said. “That gives them insight into what they’re doing and gives them great potential in the future.”

That said, YouTube Red’s SVOD rivals have already been blurring the lines between so-called digital-native talent and mainstream actors. Last December, Hulu got into business with Freddie Wong for the semi-scripted comedy series “Rocketjump: The Show.” Netflix recently inked another YouTube star, Miranda Sings, to her own scripted comedy series.

Now YouTube will see if it too can capitalize on the talent taking root on its own platform, but keeping them around for bigger projects on YouTube Red to avoid having them help homegrown talent walk away with the audience they themselves bred.

That said, Daniels doesn’t rule out the possibility of seeing the kind of traditional premium content she shepherded at MTV make its way to YouTube Red. “We should definitely play in this lane that celebrates YouTube creators and want to do that for the majority of our programming but I think for the right content that is more in the HBO/Showtime/Hulu lane, there is ideally room for both on the platform,” she said.

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