How YouTube's Clean-Up Act Inadvertently Impacts Creators: "It's Very Frustrating"

In its latest effort to create a safe environment, the Google-owned video giant is changing its search algorithm and directing younger visitors to its Kids app channels, leaving some baffled: "We're now trying to understand what the new rules are."

In early July, First Media noticed that YouTube viewership to its toddler-centric brand, BabyFirst TV, had dropped between 30 and 40 percent. "It was very clear that they did something," says Arik Kerman, First's executive vp programming and digital. He's referring to YouTube, which he believes made changes to its algorithm that caused the decline in BabyFirst video views. "Honestly, it's very frustrating. We're now trying to understand what the new rules are."

Indeed, on Aug. 1, YouTube acknowledged to Bloomberg that it had made an algorithm change to boost "quality" family content. Some family-friendly channels got a viewership bump, but BabyFirst — which has 1.5 million subscribers on its main channel, dedicated to teaching children ages 0 to 3 basics like colors and the ABCs — was one of several channels impacted negatively.

While algorithm changes are nothing new, this one comes amid renewed scrutiny over whether YouTube is a safe environment for children who both post and view videos. Multiple times over the past two years, the Google-owned site has had to answer for the scores of violent, sexual and exploitative videos aimed at children that proliferate on its platform. Earlier this year, reports revealed that pedophiles were congregating in the comments sections of videos featuring kids. In response, YouTube has purged more than 400 channels, disabled comments on tens of millions of videos and reduced recommendations of content featuring children in "risky situations."

Per a July report from The Washington Post, the company has agreed to a multiyear settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over its collection of data from children under age 13, a violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Kids' safety on YouTube is "one of the most important areas we focus on," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said July 25 on an earnings call.

Many creators who operate family-friendly YouTube channels acknowledge the importance of child safety. But their concerns over algorithm changes also highlight the challenge for YouTube in protecting young viewers from exploitation while also supporting businesses that use its platform to reach their audiences. "Over the years, we've taken a number of critical steps to protect minors and families on YouTube," a company spokeswoman told THR, pointing to the effort to disable comments on videos featuring kids and a recent rule change that restricts unaccompanied minors from live-streaming. "We recognize these changes may have an impact on creators, which is why we provide a number of resources."

YouTube restricts users under age 13 from creating accounts, though it's not hard for younger children to dodge that rule. The company directs younger users to YouTube Kids, a separate app it launched in 2015 with a curated selection of family-friendly videos, including from established brands like Sesame Street, Nickelodeon and Disney. While not as robust as the main YouTube, which has 2 billion monthly users, YouTube Kids is popular with parents. Some kid-centric channels report that between 20 and 50 percent of their overall views come from the app. But while it's been suggested that YouTube could move all children's content to the Kids app as a way to avoid further safety risks, not everyone supports that idea. "I don't think it would achieve the goal that those calling for it are actually seeking," says Chris M. Williams, founder and CEO of children's media brand Pocket.watch. "You'd have a service that reaches a billion people where many audience members are young people who wouldn't move over to YouTube Kids, and now they would only have access to adult content."

Analysts believe that cleaning up the platform can only help. "It's important for advertisers to have a YouTube that works for them," says GroupM's Brian Wieser. "The clearer the environment, even if it came at the expense of less inventory, the more desirable the platform would be for advertisers and to users and consumers, too." Creators agree. "This change, in the short term, it hurts," says Kerman of BabyFirst, which already has seen its traffic start to recover from the July algorithm change. "But in the long term, I completely understand what YouTube is doing. At the end of the day, content creators, YouTube and parents will benefit."

 

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.