YouTube Content Chief Talks 'Karate Kid' Reboot, Aging Audiences Up

Susanne Daniels_Vidcon - H 2016
Natalie Jarvey

Susanne Daniels_Vidcon - H 2016

A year after YouTube content chief Susanne Daniels held an impromptu Q&A session with television critics during the streamer’s first appearance at the Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, she returned to the semiannual event for an official turn in the hot seat.

In her first executive session since joining YouTube as global head of original content in 2015, Daniels gamely fielded questions about her programming strategy for the streaming service while also deflecting queries about just how many people are watching the shows she’s ordering.

Daniels may be a veteran of TCA, but YouTube has only been producing originals for two years. And the message during the Friday-morning session was largely that its still building up its brand. “I considered 2016 to be the year of the great experiment because we were eager to see whether fans would gravitate to our programming in a subscription environment,” she told the crowd, highlighting some of the 27 series and films launched during the YouTube Red service’s inaugural year. That number will grow in 2017 to more than 35 projects, including several that are much broader in scope than past projects.

That means, in many cases, working with more traditional stars like Ryan Hansen and Samira Wiley, who joined Daniels onstage later in the morning to promote their upcoming YouTube Red show, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television. Here were the highlights from the sessions.

YouTube Tries to Age Up

The one big piece of news announced during YouTube’s TCA appearance was its deal to bring Karate Kid back as a series called Cobra Kai, with stars Ralph Macchio and William Zabka even reuniting onstage at the start of Daniels’ Q&A. While the property is clearly beloved, Daniels immediately fielded questions about whether YouTube’s millennial and Gen Z audience would be familiar with the source material. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know Karate Kid,” she said, defending the pickup. She also noted that YouTube Red is looking to target an 18-49 audience with the show. Cobra Kai is part of Daniels’ efforts to broaden YouTube Red’s programming. While the company will continue to work with its endemic stars, it is also picking up projects with more traditional talent attached, including Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television and Step Up: High Water. “It’s part of an evolving strategy for YouTube Red,” Daniels said of Cobra Kai, adding that she believes the show will have “strong appeal,” regardless of whether the viewer is familiar with the original Karate Kid film.

International Programming Is Coming

YouTube Red is available in just five countries currently, but Daniels is already thinking about how to develop programming for new regions. The service’s first international original was Big Bang in South Korea. Daniels touted that the show brought in more subscribers “than we even predicted,” 50 percent of which were from Korea and 50 percent of which were from other countries. Next up is a second original in Korea, as well as localized programs in Japan, France, Germany, England and Mexico. Daniels explained that the programming will coincide with international expansion in 2018 into several new markets.

Few Numbers to See Here

Like other streaming services, YouTube has taken the approach of not disclosing viewership data for its shows, though the company has previously revealed that its first year of programming received nearly a quarter of a billion views. But the streamer, which is still one of the newest platforms currently producing TV programming, also does not disclose how many are subscribing to Red, which costs $10 per month. “Netflix didn’t share its subscriber numbers in their early days either,” Daniels said when asked about the size of the service’s audience. “I can’t share that information today, but I can tell you definitively that we are on track. We are overreaching ambitious goals.” Daniels also declined to comment about YouTube’s original-programming budget when asked how the company’s commitment compares to the $6 billion Netflix spends on programming.

The Joke’s on YouTube

The only show paneled during YouTube’s TCA session, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, drew several questions about the number of YouTube Red jokes it features, including some about how the service’s name is similar to a well-known porn service. But Daniels wasn't phased. “Those are my favorite jokes!” she exclaimed, later noting that she never told series creator and director Rawson Marshall Thurber to tone down the wisecracks. “I thought it was all really playful,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to make fun of yourself.”