YouTube is gearing up to offer its prestige lineup of original series and films for free to all users, turning to its traditional ad-supported system in an attempt to bring in more viewers.
The company is looking to pull back on its ad-supported programs by 2020, limiting the number of original series and films it orders, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Series that are ordered, which include a few with Hollywood star talent attached, will be available to all YouTube users for free, regardless of whether they’ve signed up for YouTube Premium. In the past, pilot episodes were free to watch, but users had to pay a monthly $12 fee to watch the entire series.
Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s chief business officer, told The Hollywood Reporter that the company learned through experimentation that “a lot of the projects work incredibly well” when they’re made available for free through ad-supported networks. It’s a different approach than what YouTube’s team originally wanted to do.
“If you look at our originals over the last few years, our main goal was to drive subscribers to YouTube Premium,” Kyncl said.
A fork in the road
That original approach didn’t work out the way the company hoped. Although YouTube hasn’t released the exact number of subscribers YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) has, the company reportedly only registered 1.5 million subscribers in 2016. The paid tier didn’t exactly deliver on the promise of more prestigious, exclusive programming for users. The shows were limited, they didn’t receive great critical feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, it appeared that YouTube’s team ran into trouble transitioning people who were used to a free platform into paid content.
All of these elements led YouTube to a fork in the road: it could pursue original series more aggressively and hope for more subscribers, or it could scale back. Instead, YouTube found an alternative. The company invested hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding YouTube Premium (then Red), teaming up with celebrities like Kevin Hart and Ellen DeGeneres for original series. Although the paywall still existed, YouTube explored releasing many of these series for free to all YouTube users. The new series relied heavily on ad support and sponsorships. The concept was simple: big names will attract big advertisers, and that means more money in YouTube’s pocket.
As a result, subscriptions became less important as YouTube expanded its ad-supported network of original series. It’s something that other companies that work with YouTube noticed, too. An executive told Digiday that YouTube Red subscriptions made up “less than one percent” of revenue for major channels.
One executive at a network that gets more than a billion views per month on YouTube said YouTube Red subscription revenue accounted for about 7 percent of the network’s “YouTube-monetized” revenue in 2017. “That’s with just what YouTube monetizes and doesn’t include [the ads and sponsorships] that we sell,” he said. “If you add in what we sell, it becomes less than a percent.”
YouTube continued to expand its library, relying heavily on ad support from big-name companies like Johnson & Johnson, which signed on for a Ryan Seacrest-led show. But no one, not even YouTube, could quite agree on what YouTube Red was, especially in a sea of rapidly growing original content from Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. The company showed no signs of slowing down, and it felt pressure to compete, according to a 2017 article from Bloomberg. More shows were added, more celebrities were chased, and more advertisements were secured.
Considering how invested YouTube seemed in original series at the time, news of the company’s decision to scale back may seem out of the blue, but executives like CEO Susan Wojcicki have hinted at this direction for some time.
This was coming
Then, in February, Wojcicki made headlines after telling Recode’s Kara Swisher that YouTube Premium was a music service. It marked the first time that a YouTube executive specifically called out the subscription platform as a music service, putting the emphasis on the platform’s video library through its partnership with Vevo.
“Our goal is to be a large, leading video platform and have a large diverse set of content,” Wojcicki told Swisher. “There are all these categories that no one is really providing a solution to, and we can be best at breeding there. Shows and movies is a very competitive space; it needs to be paid for economically with a subscription service.”
When asked if YouTube was interested in developing a series that could compete against a prestige original show from Netflix or Hulu in the same vein as House of Cards, Wojcicki offered another insightful answer into what the company’s plans were.
“We could, but I’m not sure that would further what we’re trying to do at YouTube,” she said.
This was a stark 180-degree pivot away from where the company’s plans were two years prior. Susanne Daniels, the former head of MTV’s original content who oversees YouTube Premium, told reporters in 2016 the exact opposite.
“YouTube is all in on original content,” Daniels said. “We want to open Hollywood’s rolodex and introduce our creators to visionary directors, writers, and producers.”
It’s a short period for a massive shift in winds. A few things happened that can help explain YouTube’s reluctance to pursue more original series — especially with individual creators who have huge followings on YouTube.
Part of YouTube’s plan with original series was to attract bigger advertisers, but in the wake of multiple controversies — including disturbing children’s content, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and terrorist content appearing with ads on the platform — companies became reluctant to place ads on YouTube videos. YouTube couldn’t promise safety, and that was a big concern for advertisers.
Then, YouTube ran into issues with individual creators. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg lost his original series Scare PewDiePie in February 2017, following controversy over anti-Semitic jokes and images that appeared in his videos. Logan Paul’s original movie The Thinning: New World Order was put on hold after he filmed a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest earlier this year. (Paul’s film was unceremoniously released last month.) Both creators were working with YouTube on the projects and earning top-tier Google Preferred ad income. The company was facing major issues. Suddenly, its top stars were becoming controversial faces, and advertisers didn’t want their ads appearing on the videos or sponsoring those creators.
YouTube execs may have launched YouTube Red with the intention of being a genuine Netflix competitor and honing its own talent for original series, but suddenly, it had become too risky of a bet. People weren’t really subscribing, advertisers were concerned about the platform, and creators were no longer reliable. So YouTube pivoted to a safer bet that it could expand upon: music and celebrities.
If that trajectory sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one that defined MTV for years.
The future of YouTube Premium is unclear, but one thing is certain: it’s not going to rely on subscriptions. The company is instead returning to its roots and investing star power there. Advertisements will appear before videos, and everything will be free. But in order to maintain top-dollar advertisement placements from big companies, celebrities will be roped in. That’s why Victoria Beckham has a YouTube channel, alongside Will Smith and Ellen DeGeneres.
Now, YouTube Premium isn’t as worthwhile for users; other than offline music play and ad-free viewing, subscribers aren’t going to get much out of it. But to the company, that doesn’t matter. Subscriptions aren’t what YouTube is interested in — advertisements and celebrity channels are. As more celebrities are brought in, both to help boost the platform’s credibility within the industry and to secure better advertisements, YouTube’s landscape is going to change.
What was once a possible purchase for those who might have been interested in YouTube’s original content that was hidden behind a membership fee suddenly seems like an inexplicable buy.