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Susanne Daniels Throws Out the TV Rulebook to Lead YouTube Red

Variety logo Variety 1/17/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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When YouTube decided to get serious about developing high-end content for its YouTube Red subscription product, the Internet behemoth turned to a seasoned TV pro.

Susanne Daniels, who joined YouTube as global head of content in July 2015, helped birth such notable series as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek” during her tenure in programming at the WB Network. She also logged stints at ABC and Fox and, more recently, Lifetime and MTV.

All of that experience at broadcast and cable networks taught Daniels, one of this year’s Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award honorees at the NATPE conference in Miami, the rules of the road for developing TV series, even those that were unconventional from the start such as “Buffy.” But most of that rule book has been thrown out now that she’s working in the always-on environment of the world’s most-watched video platform.

“There’s such a broad audience that uses YouTube. There’s such a big opportunity to appeal to a really wide demographic and to diverse audience (segments),” Daniels tells Variety. “In some ways it’s freeing and in some ways it’s daunting. When the skies the limit, you’re constantly thinking about ‘What am I not thinking of today?’ “

Daniels is driving the content side of YouTube’s push into the subscription VOD arena. YouTube Red, which formally launched in February 2016, has exceeded its initial year-one subscriber goal. YouTube hasn’t disclosed the subscriber base for Red, but Daniels said its benchmark sub target was reached in late November.

Among the high-profile projects on Daniels’ slate is a dance-themed scripted drama from Lionsgate TV adapted from the “Step Up” film franchise. The series is expected to bow in the summer. Dance-related content is such a big part of YouTube’s general audience base that the “Step Up” theme made sense for Red. It’s also a subject that travels well around the world, Daniels said.

The development team that Daniels has pulled together during the past year has the wherewithal to draw on the traditional Hollywood creative community for material as well as the gigantic incubator that is YouTube. She’s excited for the potential for a project in development at present with Liza Koshy, a young personality who has been bubbling up. YouTube Red last month fielded a backdoor pilot for Koshy with the holiday special “Jingle Ballin’. ”

The newly launched YouTube production space in Playa Vista — a resource open to YouTubers with more than 10,000 followers to produce content for their YouTube channels — has also been a source of inspiration for Daniels’ team.

“YouTube stars are a breed unto themselves — and they are not to be underestimated,” Daniels says. “We are just starting to really take a deep look at that talent base and produce shows that can appeal to a broader audience beyond their core YouTube loyalists who follow them already.”

The comedy duo Rhett and Link has been an early success story for YouTube Red. “Rhett and Link’s Buddy System” is a scripted series with episodes running about 13-15 minutes. It’s a good example of how an SVOD service can differentiate itself from linear TV offerings, Daniels says. Rhett and Link came to Red with a fully formed idea for the show, while talent such as Koshy is undergoing a more traditional development process.

“The essence of what we do is the same that I’ve done for many years,” Daniels says. “I want these shows to appeal to as large an audience as possible. But the paths that we take to get there are different.”

For one, marketing and scheduling of an SVOD series is very different from a linear TV launch.

“I don’t think about marketing in advance anymore,” Daniels says. “We don’t want to start marketing until our show actually drops. We don’t think about scheduling in the same way. Primetime versus daytime, fall launch versus midseason launch — those questions don’t matter anymore.”

Building a level of interactivity, on the other hand, is a big focus. So is virtual reality and live event programming. Daniels hints at projects coming together with Dan Harmon and a comedy set in the world of eSports.

For Daniels, receiving the Tartikoff Award recognition at a time when she’s working in such a path-breaking environment is particularly significant. She worked with the late Brandon Tartikoff on several projects during his time as an independent producer after his storied run NBC and brief tenure at Paramount. Tartikoff, known for his  unbridled ambition and boundless creativity, undoubtedly would have thrived in the current content landscape.

“I think there’s so much upside. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re capable of so much more,” Daniels says. “It’s exciting days at YouTube.”

Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton are co-authors of “Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB Network and UPN,” published in 2007 by HarperCollins.

(Pictured: Daniels, right, with YouTube star Lilly Singh)

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