Critic's Notebook: The YouTube Premium Concept Is All But Done

No matter what it calls its shift in strategy, the premium scripted content game is all but over.
Courtesy of Erin Keating
Maddie Hasson from YouTube's 'Impulse,' realizing that other shows won't be coming to join her.

There were so many interesting things to glean from the revelation that YouTube would be "shifting its strategy" on scripted fare and how to compete in this insane Peak TV world of content, as reported Tuesday by The Hollywood Reporter's Natalie Jarvey, whose monitoring of the tech world as it pertains to TV has always revealed interesting thoughts from that industry's leaders.

The first thing I took from it was that I'd already predicted 13 months prior that YouTube (and Facebook Watch for that matter) wouldn't be a real threat to the content wars now taking place in the industry. YouTube Originals was a big-swing idea that had to find out, definitively, if the immense online entity's user base would A) pay for something and B) be interested in scripted longform storytelling.

Well, YouTube found out definitively that the answer was a resounding no. But of course few entities in the world like to admit failure, so my second favorite part of Jarvey's story was how YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl tried to spin it all. Jarvey quoted him as saying, "It's far too early to tell something that decisive" of the scripted pullback and what it means.

Actually, it's not too early. It's over. YouTube had a relatively meager budget for originals as compared to the other online behemoths — Netflix, Amazon and cash-stacking Apple. Bloomberg reported that YouTube would not increase its budgeting for two years — which would clearly make it non-competitive with everyone else in town — and turning off the tap on all that money also falls in line with Jarvey's reporting that YouTube will be scaling back its scripted projects in 2020. 

The whole article, thanks to Kyncl's spinning, had that it's-not-nearly-as-bad-as-it-sounds tone to it, but the underlying element is that YouTube Premium, the subscription-based model (formerly called YouTube Red), was a bust. The company is now, according to Jarvey, planning to "double down on YouTube's ad-supported business by making all future originals free to its 2 billion users, regardless of whether they pay $12 each a month for subscription service YouTube Premium."

Well, that sends a cheery message, does it not? The whole "it's free unless the dumbasses among you still want to send us $12 a month, then great" is weirdly inventive, I'll give you that. In 2019, with massive new streaming services from Disney, Apple and probably WarnerMedia, do you think people might have somewhere else to send that $12 if they want content?

The end of the article has Kyncl denying that YouTube is backing away from its subscription strategy and saying that its international push is a sign of commitment to it, stating, "One of the main reasons that people publish content to YouTube is for the incredible global reach. The same should be true for our originals."

But it's not the same. People publish on YouTube for its global reach, yes, but also because it's free. Paying for a premium service for originals hasn't worked because YouTube was born a free service and anytime people get something for free for long stretches of time, they get a little testy when you suddenly ask them to pay for it. Or, in this case, not testy but indifferent. Also, the platform was literally created for shortform video, not longform. Users remain resistant to longer narrative-driven content. YouTube is figuring that out, trying to pivot and at the same time denying there's a failure — which is clever, but not believable. If YouTube makes its Originals free and then sticks ads in there, well, you can probably guess how successful that's going to be. 

The question going forward — certainly the part that interests me from an industry standpoint — is whether famous scripted content creators will continue to put their work on YouTube. In the past, money was money — and even though YouTube had less of it than Netflix, for example, it still had enough to lure in lots of big names who were, ostensibly, taking the money and hoping their pet projects would reach at least some percentage of YouTube's 2-billion-large audience. Why not? Everybody was doing the same thing at other non-traditional outlets, like Apple.

But money is only money until it's no longer uniquely a factor. And when everybody has money to dole out for projects, the next deciding factor is not only will it get seen, but whether it will sit on the shelf at what amounts to a successful, partially curated library. That, folks, is your bright new future in the streaming wars.

Series may get lost in the shuffle at Netflix, but creators at least know that Netflix is essentially a vast library of collected television series and movies. Your work sits among the work of other creative types you have lunch with or see at parties. 

YouTube hasn't been in the prestige content game long enough to have that reputation, or that content, which makes its recent announcement all the more troubling for attracting future content. Because everything right now that's been paid for and will eventually appear on YouTube Premium is about to be turned into an orphan.

A second season of Cobra Kai will be there. A second season of the Doug Liman-produced Impulse will be there. The Jordan Peele-produced anthology Weird City and the Kirsten Dunst dark comedy series On Becoming a God in Central Florida are both coming in 2019, but so are potentially three other massive streaming services with content and a commitment to showcase that content for years to come. Nobody is talking about Impulse at all. Reduction in scripted at YouTube essentially leaves Weird City and On Becoming a God In Central Florida as stray dogs. Or, to hammer this home, pure breeds in a vast field of mangy mutts.

See, that's the bigger problem for YouTube and its premium content ambitions now: perception. You're either all in the game, or you're partly or barely in, which is not ideal for high-profile creative types. Money and an opportunity for massive viewership got people in the door — but that won't be enough going forward. Money and opportunities are everywhere now, thanks to streaming and flush internet companies. What remains is at least the illusion that you are where everybody wants to be. You parked your project at a content provider that will promote your work and put it next to the work of other creative people just like you. It's in a library now, next to tons of other titles. In a place people actively seek out exactly that kind of work.

YouTube just signaled it can't be that place. So high-profile deals are about to dry up. Next to face this hard truth? Facebook Watch.