Five years ago, if Susanne Daniels had abandoned the comfort and prestige of a well-established cable brand for an enterprise built on homemade videos of cute cats, juvenile pranks, snarky slackers playing video games and teens and twentysomethings staring into the camera, sharing the minutiae of their personal lives, people probably would’ve said she was crazy — maybe even to her face.
But it wasn’t five years ago. It was last July. And ever since Disney bought multi-channel network Maker Studios in March 2014 in a deal worth up to $950 million, traditional media players have been in a mad rush to establish a beachhead on the streaming video landscape. They realize something exciting and powerful is happening on YouTube that goes way beyond cat videos, even if they still don’t quite understand what it is or what to do with it.
So it makes sense to hear Daniels say that when she told her industry peers she was leaving her post as president of programming at MTV to join YouTube in the newly-created role of VP of YouTube Originals, effective in the fall of 2015, “people reacted like I’d won the lottery.”
“Every agent who called me said ‘brilliant move,’” Daniels recalls. “I was thinking, ‘It is? Okay. Good.’ I mean, I thought it was a good move, but I didn’t think it was a brilliant move. I’ve never gotten that. I was excited going to MTV, but I didn’t get that kind of positive reaction.”
Only time will tell if YouTube’s decision to reach into the cable world and hire Daniels was equally brilliant, but it is definitely significant as it puts her in charge of the original content pipeline for YouTube Red, the much-touted ad-free video and music subscription service it launched last fall.
The transition has required some mental realignment by Daniels, who has been conditioned over the course of a three-decade career that began with a job as an assistant to executive producer Lorne Michaels on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and has included stints leading the programming divisions at Lifetime Television and The WB Network (now The CW).
“For years, I’ve worked for the network, thinking I need a nine o’clock drama, I need a lead-in,” Daniels says. “I have to let go of scheduling, but it’s so ingrained in me that, when I hear a pitch, sometimes I’ll think, that’ll work really well with ‘Prank vs. Prank,’ but then I realize, I don’t need it to. That’s not how people are watching on this platform.”
Another big change for Daniels at YouTube is the constant flow of direct feedback from viewers in the form of video comments and likes and dislikes.
“Working at a network, we were putting up shows and the viewers were consuming them, but it didn’t really feel like much of a relationship,” Daniels says. “It felt like a one-way street, and now I’m on a two-way street. The fans feel very engaged and part of the YouTube stars’ world. They feel responsible and integrated. And the YouTube stars, in turn, have a mutual appreciation with their fans and they look to them for guidance.”
Unlike most of their counterparts in the traditional film and TV worlds, YouTubers aren’t tapped by tastemakers working for corporate conglomerates to appear in someone else’s project, then catapulted to stardom by multi-million dollar promotion machines. They cast themselves in their own videos that they self-promote on the platform and other social channels. They don’t need permission to produce or distribute. The only gatekeepers for stardom are the viewers.
This result for Daniels is a refreshing spin on the development process.
“One of the things love with YouTube stars is they have a certain amount of self-awareness of their talent and what works and what doesn’t work for them that I haven’t I haven’t seen as much of in actors,” Daniels observes. “They are highly entrepreneurial and there’s a democratic, do-it-yourself spirit to YouTube that creates a positivity about the platform. And when I meet with YouTube stars, they do have a lot of ideas about what they want to do, but in great ways. Knowing what resonates with their fans, they apply that to the concepts they come in and talk about.”
And what exactly is Daniels developing for YouTube? The first batch of YouTube Red originals that began rolling out in February — including the reality show “Scare PewDiePie,” the sitcom “Foursome,” and the Lilly Singh tour documentary “A Trip to Unicorn Island,” produced by Astronauts Wanted — were greenlit prior to Daniels hiring. And none of the projects developed under her watch have been revealed.
In her three years at MTV, Daniels’ accomplishments include building up the network’s narrative slate with series such as “Finding Carter,” “Faking It,” “Scream” and “The Shannara Chronicles,” helping revamp the network’s signature reality franchise “The Real World” and launching the new matchmaking show “Are You The One?”
But that was then, and this is now. Daniels understands she needs to do more than just port traditional cable-style programming into the YouTube content pipeline or emulate the originals on VOD platforms such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
“We want to provide distinct, quality entertainment in a YouTube way, which may mean short-form formats and things that work great on YouTube like music that don’t work as great, with the exception of say the Grammys, on network television,” Daniels says. “I didn’t develop the (YouTube Red) strategy, but I quite agree with it, and am embracing enthusiastically that we are working with YouTube stars and going after their loyal fans, and so far so good with the strategy.”
In addition to viewer feedback and mountains of data from the platform (“I’ve never heard the word analytics and algorithms as much as I have in the past six months,” Daniels says), she has her own homegrown focus group to help with her programming decisions — her four children with her husband, writer/producer Greg Daniels (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation”).
Although her new YouTube gig is seen as a brilliant move by her peers, for her kids it merely maintains the status quo.
“I got cooler when I joined MTV,” Daniels says. “And I think I’ve stayed cool jumping to YouTube.”