YouTube's Robert Kyncl on Policing World's Largest Video Platform, Logan Paul Controversy
"We should have done better," the chief business officer says of how the company handled the star’s widely condemned vlog as he also addresses accusations of political bias and his original-content strategy.
Growing up under communism in Czechoslovakia, Robert Kyncl saw his first-ever Hollywood movie via a pirated copy of The Terminator dubbed into Czech by a single voice actor. Today, Kyncl, 47, presides over all business aspects of YouTube, including its relationship with advertisers and creators. "I imagine if I had YouTube growing up, how cool it would be," he says.
In his nearly eight years with YouTube, the former Netflix vp has pushed the technology company further into Hollywood, launching a skinny TV bundle to lure cord-cutters and hiring MTV veteran Susanne Daniels to build up a slate of original programming (Step Up: High Water, Cobra Kai) for subscription streaming service YouTube Red.
But in the past year, the wonders of YouTube's cornucopia of video entertainment have been overshadowed by the Google-owned company's challenges policing the 400 hours of content uploaded every minute. As a result, several brands pulled their ads from the platform, part of a larger cutback in digital ad spending that led P&G to slash its 2017 budget by $200 million. In January, those concerns became worldwide news after a video showing a suicide victim was posted by one of the platform's biggest stars, Logan Paul, and it became a top trending video. "We're spending every day thinking about this," Kyncl says.
The father of two teenage daughters with wife Luz Avila-Kyncl, a wellness coach, Kyncl oversees close to 1,000 employees in 32 countries for YouTube, which eMarketer estimates will earn over $4 billion in U.S. ad revenue this year. This year, the author of Streampunks: YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media has set his sights on further growing subscription service YouTube Red and skinny bundle YouTube TV. There have also been hints of adding a paid music service. "Coming soon," he says when he sits down with THR at YouTube's dog-friendly Playa Vista campus.
Let's start with Logan Paul.
Some critics thought you were initially too lenient with Paul. Explain the thought process behind how you responded.
His video was regrettable and our hearts went out to the family of the individual in it, but it did not violate policies [that would ban him from] the platform. We issued a strike, in accordance with our process. We also put all of our original projects [with Paul] on hold. We took him out of Google Preferred. We took several steps to disincentivize that kind of behavior. The subsequent demonetization came because of repeated behavior. He's been cooperative in the process and making sure that his videos and his behavior support the whole creator ecosystem.
Did you learn anything from the controversy?
We should have done better. We were fast on our PR response, but we were slow on our social response. I think that is what we got flagged for — and rightly so.
Will this be how YouTube punishes creator missteps going forward?
It's a good indicator of the things we're thinking about. We'll have more on that later in the year.
Does the YouTube algorithm encourage creators to make bigger, crazier videos for better traffic?
It's a bit of a fallacy when people try to optimize for [the algorithm] in order to get some kind of desired effect, like get on this page or that page. If it works, it won't a few months from now, because it's a living and breathing organism.
Two of YouTube's biggest constituents — creators and advertisers — have spent most of the past year mad at you. Looking back, do you wish you had done anything differently?
Advertisers were not happy with us and creators were not happy with us because they both thought we were favoring the other. That was not a great place for YouTube. But we were doing everything that we could for advertisers and everything that we could for creators, all at the same time. We've done the absolute human best that we possibly could. We have a tremendous group of people all around Google who have been working on these things, day and night, through holidays, et cetera. If I had to go back, we couldn't have done it differently. It's all just hindsight.
How are things with those constituents today?
I think it's a lot better than it was, but we still have a lot of work to do. We know that.
After several right-wing YouTube channels were accidentally removed, some have accused YouTube's moderators of political bias. How do you respond?
We have four freedoms under which YouTube operates: freedom of expression, freedom of opportunity, freedom to belong and freedom of information. They truly become our North Star during difficult times. For me, having come from a place that didn't have freedom of information and freedom of expression, they're extremely important. Our message is that we absolutely are leaning in to freedom of information and freedom of expression, subject to our community guidelines. We don't intend to be on one side or another.
As a content-focused executive, how do you balance the tension between being a tech platform and a media company?
When anybody can have a voice, there are some people who may not have good intentions. To tackle that on the scale at which we operate is not possible to do with people only. It is also not possible to do it with machines only. A great example of that is this stat: Between July of last year and December, the algorithms have done the job of 180,000 people working 40 hours a week just on violent extremism videos. This is where technology is our friend. People can provide the input to the machines to make sure there is the right context, but the only way to scale that is through the machines.
With so much content available, how do you ensure your originals aren't getting lost on the platform?
YouTube makes its money off of selling impressions to advertisers all around the world. If we're telling advertisers to come here, it would be quite odd if we were not actually the best example of how to market on our platform. It doesn't mean we don't market off YouTube, we do. But the thing we have to be absolutely best at is marketing on YouTube. Because we have 1.5 billion logged-in monthly users, we don't necessarily have to go and look for the audience in many other places.
Netflix will release 700 original projects this year. What is the right number for YouTube Red?
We're thinking somewhere between 20 and 30 projects a year. The reason that we don't have to do what the other companies do is because we have a vast amount of content on YouTube as it is. Our service isn't just for a few original projects. Our service is all of YouTube ad free, with offline functionality and with originals.
Will you ever disclose how many people subscribe to YouTube Red?
Two billion. (Laughs.) Not yet.
You were a professional skier in your youth. How have you carried that part of your life into your career?
I did cross-country skiing all my life. It's big in Eastern Europe. I started in fourth grade and did it one year after high school. We practiced two, three times a day. The only day off was Sunday. So I had to live a very structured life. That in itself is a great preparation for a job like this. It's phenomenal preparation for life.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.