YouTube wants to go head to head with HBO on quality

  • YouTube has high aspirations for its original shows, as the company believes they can be as good as any HBO series.
  • The company’s chief business officer Robert Kyncl has written a new book detailing the new crop of creators and content formats that YouTube has birthed.
  • Google’s deal for YouTube is one of the “most successful acquisitions for any company.”

YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl has one regret about YouTube Red, the Alphabet-owned video company’s fledgling subscription service. In his mind, YouTube, not HBO, should be making “Insecure,” the acclaimed scripted sitcom chronicling the lives of a group of young, single African Americans in Los Angeles.

The buzzy show was created by Issa Rae, who built her following on YouTube, with former Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore. To Kyncl, “Insecure” represents exactly the sort of quality show that YouTube can and should be nurturing on YouTube Red — particularly given Rae’s history on the platform.

“If we were doing our originals running [when “Insecure” was being developed], that show would be on YouTube right now,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t that show work?” Kyncl added. “There’s nothing different about it [than other YouTube Red projects]. We would have made it the same way. Literally, if her life cycle was shifted by three years, if she came through and pitched us the show and her success on YouTube, we’d be like, ‘Yes! Done! Makes total sense … There’s just nothing that would stop us from doing it.”

Kyncl is in New York this week to promote today’s release of “Streampunks,” a new book he and top Google speechwriter Maany Peyvan have co-authored. The idea behind the book is to trace the rise of YouTube stars and YouTube-born content genres, such as the work of many ‘vloggers’ and beauty influencers and unique comedians like Lilly Singh.

Both executives believe this particular crop of creators is still below the radar in many media circles. And there’s a perception that it it limited to a smaller, very young demographic.

Business Insider caught up with Kyncl and Peyvan to talk about “Streampunks” and what YouTube’s plans are going forward. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

YouTube stars have done lots of books. But was the big idea here that no one has really chronicled the growth of the YouTube talent world and the path that it took?

Kyncl: It was partly that. Our point of view was, this was a business book, but we knew that because of the subject there was a real chance that it would expand beyond that. Everybody likes entertainment, everybody likes video. And there are a lot of people trying to figure out what’s really happening in video.

There were three main messages we wanted to deliver in the book. Even though huge amounts of time and focus are spent on existing formats travelling through the internet, like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, what we’re talking about is new storytellers and new formats, which are capturing billions of people’s attention.

Number two, they are actually building large online and offline global businesses … And the third one is, that it’s for people of all ages.

Peyvan: There is a ton of attention on online video. Everyone knows Netflix has these great series, Amazon has these great series. The reason for that that is, for one, those guys are doing some great stuff. Plus, it’s understandable. What’s unique about YouTube is just how many new forms of stories [there are]. Even if you care about media and culture you may not know about this world.

Shields: Early on there were questions about what YouTube was going to become, and what Google wanted to do with it, like, did the company want to be a programmer or not? When did Google figure out that YouTube’s content was going to be different and that’s what it should focus on?

Kyncl: Because it’s an open platform, a lot of things happen in an unexpected manner. What we can do is help accelerate certain things and explore certain things. Ultimately, YouTube will become what users want it to be … if you are pleasing the users, you can build a business around it … A lot of people have make conjectures about what YouTube is going to do. It not really us deciding in the end.

Shields: If there was no YouTube when these creators came of age, do you think most of them become creators in other media or no?

Kyncl: I think the world would be a worse place. Not all would be creators unfortunately. And the world would be worse off for that. I think a whole bunch of them would be … [but] because of the limited shelf space of traditional media, not all of these creators would be able to make it. Lots of businesses wouldn’t be built. 


Peyvan: There’s actually maths on this. If you look at the number of people working in creative fields per GDP, it’s actually gone up since the dawn of YouTube and the dawn of social media.

Shields: Given how much money is pouring into original web video, people wonder how committed you guys are to YouTube Red, and whether it’s going to be mostly side project reality shows for YouTube stars or something just aimed at people who don’t want ads on YouTube.

Kyncl: Number one, we are very committed. Last year we released 27 original series. This year we are ramping up with a much higher number. We’ve also expanded into much higher budget programming. You’ve seen us announced “Cobra Kai” with Sony Pictures, a remake of the “Karate Kid” franchise. You’ve seen us announced “Step Up.” So we’re definitely doing more. We’re increasing the volume as well as the budgets.

Shields: With all this success, people still have questions about YouTube business-wise. For one, not everyone can become Casey Neistat (who sold his business to CNN). You can still have a decent audience and struggle to build a business.

Kyncl: There are people that have smaller followings, like Jenny Doan, of the Missouri Star Quilt Company, who don’t have a massive following on YouTube. She has 400,000 subscribers. There are channels with millions. She’s built a massively successful business on that. It all depends on what you do with it … There are different lenses to take when you evaluate the success of it. It all doesn’t have to be in millions to matter.

Peyvan: If you want to say that it’s not easy to become a massively successful YouTube creator, I think it’s fair to say that. There’s a misconception that these creators are overnight successes … The more you learn about these creators and their stories the more you realise how much work they put into what they do. They are absolutely entrepreneurs.

Shields: Of course, the other broad question people wonder about, is YouTube a successful business for Google?

Kyncl: I think the YouTube acquisition was one of the most successful acquisitions for any company. YouTube continues to grow in tremendous ways … I think the best person to ask is [Alphabet CFO] Ruth Porat. The fact that she brings it up a lot [on earnings calls] speaks volumes. Ruth doesn’t bring up things that don’t matter. I think the unequivocal answer is yes.

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