When YouTube’s Susanne Daniels first heard the pitch for “Cobra Kai,” she wasn’t thinking “game changer” for YouTube Red, the company’s subscription programming service. “Maybe I should have been,” she said. “But I was just thinking, ‘amazing, incredible pitch.’ The stars don’t always align in a pitch and you don’t get to check off all the boxes when you hear a pitch. But in this pitch, you just did. They just came in with everything that you could want.”
But “Cobra Kai” could indeed be the breakthrough for YouTube Red in what has already been a transformative year for the platform. YouTube Red launched in October 2015 as an ad-free service to watch YouTube videos, as well as a home for exclusive, premium content starring many of YouTube’s top creators and personalities, like Lily Singh, MatPat, DanTDM and PewDiePie (whom the company later distanced itself from after offensive videos emerged).
There’s no firm data on how many users subscribe to YouTube Red, other than a stat reported in 2016 that the service had 1.5 million paying members (at $10.99 a month), and another 1 million on free trial.
And as the service has grown, Daniels, as global head of original content for YouTube, has expanded the service to more mainstream aspirations, producing comedy, drama, reality, movies and documentaries from A-list producers and stars. Besides “Cobra Kai,” the year kicked off with “Step Up: High Water,” a series continuation of the movie franchise.
“You’re watching YouTube evolve,” Daniels said. “We’re not abandoning YouTube stars. We’re still working YouTube stars in a meaningful way. I have a show with Liza Koshy coming out this year that I’m really excited about. We’ve picked up Season 3 of ‘Mind Field’ with Michael Stevens. We’ve picked up Season 3 of Joey Graceffa’s ‘Escape the Night.’ These shows are all doing great numbers for us and driving subscriptions.
“That’s always going be a part of what we do, but we’re adding to the strategy, we’re growing,” she added. “Those shows appeal to heavy users of YouTube who tend to be younger, and we’d like to grow the demographics and grow the audience.”
That could be the case with “Cobra Kai,” which taps into the nostalgia trend gripping television. The Sony Pictures TV series reunites “The Karate Kid” stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, who played rivals in the 1984 film. Macchio was the underdog back then, but “Cobra Kai” flips the script: It’s Johnny (Zabka) who’s down on his luck while Daniel (Macchio) is a successful car dealer.
“Billy and Ralph were in the room and they were acting out scenes that were hilarious,” Daniels said. “And they both look fantastic. They’ve both been actively working over the years and honed their craft. Sony Television, being a part of it, is a company that I knew could produce well for us, and the writers had not just a track record of writing comedic, funny shows and movies, but a vision for a long-term series. They pitched me Season 1 and Season 2. You don’t always get all of that and you start to feel like the stars are aligning.”
Sony Pictures TV president Jeff Frost called YouTube Red an “amazing partner.” According to Frost, the project “was highly sought after and once we met with Susanne and her team, their passion and vision convinced us that YouTube Red was the right home for the series. Our experiences during the entire process have further solidified our decision.”
Beyond “Cobra Kai,” productions in the works at YouTube Red include the sci-fi thriller “Impulse,” from executive producer Doug Liman (a reworking of his film “Jumper”); the dark soap “Youth & Consequences,” from producer Mark Gordon; the animated comedy “Dallas & Robo,” featuring voices including John Cena and Kat Dennings; and the film “Vulture Club,” starring Susan Sarandon, Edie Falco, and Matt Bomer.
“We started to see movies could drive subscriptions the same way series could, which was a bit of a surprise to me because I guess I thought more of subscription services for series,” Daniels said. “In the spirit of what we’re doing with series, and broadening out the genre, we decided to try this movie ‘Vulture Club,’ which is a really powerful story of a mother trying to save her son, who’s a journalist, who gets captured by ISIS in Afghanistan. And Susan Sarandon gives a really amazing performance.”
Then there’s the docuseries “Best Shot” from LeBron James, which was developed for the subscription service but will actually premiere outside the paywall, on regular YouTube.
“It’s beautiful and it’s compelling and it’s moving, the story of a high school basketball team in Newark, New Jersey,” she said. “The doc series follow what they have to deal with to stay focused and the challenges they have in their lives, which are really above and beyond what high schoolers should be dealing with. That includes homelessness and drugs and street gangs and everything you could imagine that goes on in Newark. It’s so strong and sends such a positive message of humans overcoming difficult situations. We wanted to share it with the world.”
Daniels is also developing a talk show with YouTube star Jake Paul, produced by former NBC exec Ben Silverman. “Every once in a while I get involved with talent that I just want to see what they can do. I don’t drill down on it,” she said. “With Jake Paul, I know he’s got a huge audience, I know he’s beloved, I know he has a dedicated fan base, and I’m just going to let him and Ben Silverman do their thing.”
Of course, the Paul development may be a bit surprising given the controversial nature of both him and his brother Logan Paul, who drew condemnation earlier this year for a YouTube video in which he posted the body of a man who committed suicide in a Japanese forest. Logan Paul’s YouTube series was pulled, but Daniels was forced to answer questions about the star during a Television Critics Association press tour event in January.
Those missteps come with working with young and oftentimes green talent, Daniels admitted. “They’re going to make mistakes,” she said. “They’re figuring it out. The press jumps on it because they know that they’ll write these articles and people will follow them; click on them and read them, and they’re click bait for the press. But it doesn’t mean that they’re dysfunctional people, because they’re not. They just are finding their way.”
In general, Daniels said working with YouTube talent is “a pleasure because they’ve made their own mistakes. I’ve gotten into trouble for saying this before but that doesn’t stop me, because actors hate it when I say this [but] YouTube stars have this amazing sense of self and what works and what doesn’t because they’re constantly interacting with their audience. Their audience is telling them ‘we love it when you do this, we don’t love it when you do that,’ and they’ve a great sense of what works for them and why they’re successful. YouTube’s a two-way street in a bigger way than a network possibly can be.”
It’s been nearly three years since Daniels joined YouTube after a career helping launch or rebrand networks like The WB, Lifetime and MTV. Moving to a company born out of the tech world was a bit of a culture shift at first. “I’ve learned a lot being here, even just the amount of acronyms they use here at Google, that was like learning a new language,” she said. “It’s a tech company first, and not a media company first. Even though I’ll admit I hadn’t fully realized that when I was coming because I think of YouTube, and I still think of YouTube as a media company.”
As an early example, Daniels remembered launching one of her early shows: “I said to the marketing department, ‘We’re less than three months out. We’re missing opportunities. What’s the plan in terms of, is there going to be 48-hour radio spots leading up to the launch?’ I started asking about things that I was used to doing in a traditional network. The marketing department said, ‘We won’t start the marketing until we’ve launched because the second they see the marketing, they need to be able to click and access the program. If they can’t, they’re frustrated. So we’ll start the marketing maybe the week after launch.’ And I thought, now, that’s interesting. That’s so different.”
Another change: The direct relationship with audiences, who aren’t shy about their feelings — pro and con. (Those comments are right below the video, after all.) And there’s also the ongoing concern of how to handle the YouTube environment when some questionable or offensive user-generated content impacts the overall YouTube brand.
“It’s something I know upper management here takes very seriously in terms of trust and safety,” Daniels said. “They have put a lot of new measures in place over the last six months to a year to enhance trust and safety with viewers and with creators. But, again, these are still sort of evolving new technologies and there’s a learning curve. The most important thing is the response learning curve be a positive one, and that’s what I see happening internally.”
YouTube Red’s biggest business challenge at the moment may be confusion in the marketplace, particularly among analysts. It didn’t help in February at a media conference when YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki called it a “music streaming service” rather than a premium programming platform.
Indeed, perhaps a portion of the subscription base uses it for access to Google Play Music in addition to the ad-free YouTube. Even Daniels admits that there remains a need for clarity among both consumers and inside the entertainment business, given how many different kinds of YouTubes there are — including YouTube TV, a skinny bundle video service that offers access to several of the traditional linear networks.
“I get questions a lot from people in the industry, so if the industry’s confused. I imagine the community’s a little confused too,” Daniels said. “I get asked, ‘Are you YouTube TV?’ And we are a channel on YouTube TV. If you subscribe to YouTube TV, you get YouTube Originals as part of that. But YouTube Originals is a separate division and part of YouTube Red, which is a separate subscription service from YouTube TV. So, when you get YouTube TV, you don’t get the music service. Yes, I would imagine there’s some brand confusion out there.”
Daniels also continues to build YouTube Originals in an increasingly competitive world where rivals like Netflix are spending as much as $8 billion annually on programming. Wojcicki has said she’s not interested in matching that huge expenditure.
“I think we’re in an early stage,” Daniels said. “I don’t think you can compete with Netflix at this point; they’re too far ahead. But I do think, in time, we can compete with Hulu and Amazon and certainly Apple, and hopefully, you’ll see us do that.”
For one thing, A-list talent has been much easier to snag than during her days at the linear networks. Daniels remembers being at Lifetime and offering Julia Louis-Dreyfus $5 million, carte blanche, to do whatever she wanted at the channel — and being turned down.
“Direct it, you can do anything you want, star in it, put your kids in it, I just wanna be in business with you,” she told Louis-Dreyfus at the time. Instead, she got “a very nice pass, ‘Thank you for the generous offer, really appreciate it, don’t wanna be associated with Lifetime at this time.’ I got more of that than I’d like to admit. And that was a challenge of working at Lifetime.”
In general, having hailed from that world, Daniels noted that “it’s been difficult for the networks for a long time. NBC, and CBS and ABC, let’s face it, they don’t really have a brand anymore. They’re just generic distribution platforms. I can’t point to a brand, can you?”
But in her new job, “there’s an enormous amount of interest in being a part of YouTube,” Daniels said. “Especially because it’s a global brand and global platform. I’m working with Kevin Hart. I don’t think I could have gotten Kevin Hart to MTV even if I had begged and thrown money at him. He’s doing this great show called ‘What the Fit’ for us, which we just picked up to a second season.
“This brand seems to be a real attraction for a lot of people. Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan are executive producing ‘Step Up.’ I have a project with Ben Stiller, who’s executive producer. The ‘Cobra Kai’ guys. There’s a lot of talent in front and behind the camera that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time that I’m getting access to. I believe it’s because I work at YouTube.”
To hear more from our interview with Daniels, check out this week’s edition of KCRW’s “The Business” below.