"Fish where the fish are. This strategy continues to be the foundation of our programming efforts." That's what Susanne Daniels, global head of original content for YouTube, says about the internet giant's TV strategy.
YouTube has been making tentative steps toward original, scripted content and documentaries in the past two years under its YouTube Red banner, and is finally reaching its goal.
Here at the TV critics' media tour, YouTube presented a small slate of programs. It was a small turnout from the critics. That's not because YouTube made its presentation at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, but because what it is offering isn't that interesting. It's still taking baby steps and there is nothing startling about the content. But a lot could be learned.
By "fish where the fish are," Daniels, a TV veteran who helped develop Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek during her time at the WB Network, means "lean into the stars and genres that are loved about YouTube fans." And that is teen and millennial audiences.
Traditional TV has nothing to fear from what YouTube Red is offering. All it has to fear is the short attention span that YouTube has fostered with its millions of short videos.
On YouTube Red's slate is Youth & Consequences, a teen drama anchored around YouTube sensation Anna Akana. The 28-year-old actress/model/singer had huge hits with such videos as Why Guys Like Asian Girls and How to Deal with a Break Up. In Youth & Consequences, which Akana admits uses the same dramatic construct as the movie Mean Girls, she plays the leader of a mean-girls gang who happens to have a soft heart.
Given her existing status on YouTube, Akana was treated as a sage by the TV critics. Asked what advice she'd have for Hollywood and the industry about reaching a young audience, she was blunt.
"I would definitely say that Netflix is doing a great job, and I think YouTube Red is soon going to be a competitor," she said. "But having the binge mode available is important. Audiences now are, like, well, it takes so much for us to go out and go to the movies. If you're a young person, you want to stay home and be able to watch all the episodes of Black Mirror with a glass of wine and friends. … When something comes out once a week, unless it's Game of Thrones, I am not going to hang in there, because I've already moved on and forgotten what that show was about." That should strike fear into the hearts of TV executives if they have any intention of attracting younger viewers: They've forgotten your show by the time next week's episode arrives.
Another YouTube Red series, Impulse, is actually much closer to conventional TV. It's about a rebellious 16-year-old girl (Maddie Hasson) who discovers she has the extraordinary ability to teleport. That is, she has seizures and when that happens she can transfer matter or energy from one point to another without moving.
The series is directed and executive produced by Doug Liman who made the movies The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, produced by the team who make the series Suits and the showrunner worked on shows including ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Netflix's Hemlock Grove. What makes Impulse YouTube-specific, according to the producers: "The storytelling is seamless in this show. So exactly the moment one episode ends, the next episode picks up. And sometimes there's even a little overlap."
Also, according to Impulse executive producer Dave Bartis, who worked on Suits, "It's a storytelling technique where you'll see one character's point of view at the end of an episode and another character's point of view at the beginning of the next episode of that same scene. I think that's certainly unique storytelling that you wouldn't see in a broadcast show and certainly not that many cable shows."
Now that's not exactly true – multiple points of view are common these days and audiences are attuned to that. Still, Impulse definitely has merits in its characterization of the main character. She uses her teleport power to destroy a young man who is about to sexually assault her. He is almost killed and she has no regrets. Thematically, it's about a young woman having a power she doesn't understand and that power is, on one level, her own sexuality.
One reasonably strong show does not make YouTube Red a real competitor in terms of scripted content. But YouTube isn't going after viewers of cable or broadcast TV. It's fishing where the fish are, in youth-appeal storytelling. The rest of the TV industry can continue to fish somewhere else. With, of course, the hope that YouTube viewers eventually acquire a longer attention span.