Figuring Out YouTube Originals in a Post-Cobra Kai World | IGN

For a long time, it seemed like YouTube’s most popular original series was Cobra Kai. The Karate Kid spinoff amassed tens of millions of views, and was well-received by critics and fans. After years of YouTube trying to find its breakout hit, Cobra Kai was it.

Then YouTube sold it to Netflix in a moment of strategic reconfiguration for the company — one that wouldn’t prioritize the paywall. One that focused on what already drew in viewers: musicians, celebrities, and creators.

Music’s biggest superstars like Demi Lovato and Justin Bieber, celebrities like Paris Hilton, and top creators like Liza Koshy are the focus of YouTube’s Originals slate. Today, during the company’s annual BrandCast event put on for advertisers, YouTube announced a new Will Smith show, a MIGOS docuseries centering on “hip-hop jewelry,” shared details on new social justice initiatives, and confirmed the final season of Koshy’s Liza on Demand will premiere this fall. Add in Released, a recent music show that pairs new music videos with celebrity interviews, and it all begins to sound a little like “MTV for cord-cutters.”

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That’s part of the plan, according to Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original series.

YouTube Originals underwent a massive shift in 2018 because it had to. People weren’t really signing up for YouTube Premium, and the cost of shows seemed to greatly outpace any revenue being brought in. YouTube’s team started to work on series viewers would naturally gravitate to and content that advertisers wanted to appear on. Think top YouTube creators with a super engaged fanbase — a new generation of Rob Dyrdeks, Lauren Conrads, and even “Real World” style contestants (all those creator mansions).

“I was thinking, ‘Did I take with me sort of an MTV approach?” Daniels said when asked about the overlap of interests between MTV, where she was a longtime executive, and YouTube Originals. “I don’t think I would have done them exactly the same way for MTV, although there is some overlap. The YouTube audience is no bullshit. They smell inauthentic from 10 feet away, and they want no part of it.”

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Inauthentic. It’s a word that often comes up in the YouTube community. YouTube works precisely because it doesn’t feel like television. The connection that creators establish with their audience  — often referred to as a parasocial relationship because although it’s entirely one-sided, fans believe they actually know the person behind the screen — is what makes YouTube feel special. How can YouTube replicate that with Paris Hilton, Will Smith or Justin Bieber?

“Authenticity is really important to me when I sit down with the Paris Hiltons of the world,” Daniels added, noting that she only took the meeting out of respect for the documentary’s producers. “Paris in the meeting was so forthcoming about her life in a way that I didn’t know what I’d never seen before. At MTV, I might have wanted it to be sexier.”

“Who’s more YouTube than Justin Bieber?”

Van Toffler knows all about that. Toffler, a longtime MTV executive who now runs Gunpowder and Sky, a production company that has produced several series and documentaries for YouTube, is currently trying to revive a version of TRL for a YouTube audience called Released. It was YouTube that “displaced the music video experience, from MTV to YouTube,” Toffler told IGN. All the reasons that people chose YouTube over MTV — not being able to choose what music video to watch, the antiquated nature of linear programming — is what Toffler and Daniels are leaning into. They’re just trying to do it while bringing a little of MTV over to YouTube in the process.

YouTube may not be competing with Netflix and Spotify directly in the same manner that Disney and Apple Music are respectively, but YouTube is competing for attention. It’s here that Toffler and Daniels are hoping that using what worked for MTV (access and production value), and shaping it for a YouTube audience (emerging artists, more accurate recommendations, access to new videos 24/7) will turn Released into something teens want.

“When my colleagues and I were at MTV, there was only one place, you could go in the afternoon, to watch what was going on in music,” Toffler said. “Now, there’s so many places you can go to consume music and other content, it’s just much harder for YouTube, but I do love the fact that they’re going to use their powers for good, spreading the word about not just the big stars, but the new acts who deserve attention.”

It’s unclear if Released is working as well as YouTube wants — or if YouTube Originals are producing the numbers that YouTube executives and advertisers are hoping to see. Hilton’s documentary has amassed 22 million views in seven months. The pilot for Koshy’s Liza on Demand was viewed more than 53 million times, but it’s unclear how the rest of the show did since view numbers are switched off. Figuring out which creators to partner with, and what projects based on celebrities or musicians to order, all comes down to how it fits within the YouTube ecosystem.

“Who’s more YouTube than Justin Bieber?” Daniels asked while on the call. “Same with Demi Lovato. I don’t break them down into terms of celebrities and YouTubers. I look at are they engaged on the channel? And if they are, and there’s an audience for them there, then I want to lean into working with them.”

Keeping everyone happy

Some creators might disagree with Daniels. YouTube personalities have long expressed their frustration with the company seemingly choosing to highlight traditional celebrities like Jimmy Fallon or Victoria Beckham over its own class of homebred talent. While Daniels sees development in part as “great content is great content, and great content will come through at any place,” she also acknowledges that the best content YouTube produces has a strong “correlation between what YouTube is and what YouTube stands for.”

Last year, for example, YouTube partnered with Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson to produce the Creator Games, a livestream that helped raise money for charity and garnered more than 37 million views. Mark “Markiplier” Fisbach made a film that appeals to his 17 million subscribers. Then there was James Charles’ influencer competition show, which was designed to find the next beauty guru on YouTube — a genre of entertainment that brings in billions of views every year.

Now, however, Charles is caught up in a series of allegations over wrong behavior on dating apps, as Insider has reported. He’s not the first YouTube creator who the company has partnered with on an official show only to be caught in a worldwide controversy after the fact. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg’s show Scared PewDiePie was canceled after anti-semitic imagery appeared in a video, as discovered by the Wall Street Journal in 2017.

Part of the reason that YouTube switched its strategy on producing free-to-watch, ad-supported series was to make advertisers happy. YouTube Originals offered higher production budgets and a level of brand safety that isn’t always guaranteed on YouTube. When these instances occur, advertisers can get skittish. Daniels acknowledges that it’s a concern, but not just for YouTube. It’s a concern for everyone in programming, Daniels said.

“That’s something that you worry about all the time,” Daniels added. “Look at what happened with Roseanne and ABC, right? Perfect example.”

Navigating talent controversies, release schedules (“When I have the goods, and I knew I had the goods with Demi Lovato, I’m going to space it out and keep you on the platform for a long as possible,” Daniels said), and keeping advertisers happy is all part of Daniels’ job at YouTube. If it sounds remarkably like how cable television operates — talent scandals, time slots, and ensuring advertisers are content — that’s because it is.

YouTube Originals may not have its Cobra Kai anymore, but it’s starting to feel a little more like MTV with each new documentary series and reality show. One moment in particular that Daniels pointed to as a key YouTube Original is David Blaine’s balloon stunt that caught massive attention in September. It streamed on YouTube during the pandemic, at a time when people were stuck at home and looking for something new and exciting to watch.

“My favorite part about being at YouTube is getting to do interactive, interesting content — some that’s formatted differently because of the platform — I couldn’t do anywhere else,” she said. “It’s something I wouldn’t have done at another network. When we can do projects like that, we’re tapping into what is special and magical about YouTube.”

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