YouTube interview: Robert Kyncl

Balancing freedom of speech and with the responsibility that comes with it is a tough juggling act for global content operators like Google and YouTube. Tasked with finding a model that works and makes money is Google’s global head of content partnerships, Robert Kyncl
Google’s Robert Kyncl is determined that more viral friendly content will start being generated in the Middle East
By Shane McGinley
Mon 29 Oct 2012 10:06 AM

Cats pulling funny faces, Britney’s latest video or shaky reruns of old TV shows were generally the spectrum of clips you were accustomed to seeing uploaded on video-sharing website YouTube.

Now under the wing of media giant Google since 2006, its new owners are keen to see some return on their $1.65bn investment, but it seems they are not the only ones’ whose bank balances are benefiting from the 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute.

The organic nature of the medium means it is almost impossible to predict which clips will go viral and who will become the next big global overnight media sensation. Two recent contrasting examples are ‘Gangnam Style’ and the ‘You Need To Toughen Up A Bit’ clip.

Made by South Korean rapper Psy, ‘Gangnam Style’ was released as a single in July but by late October over half a billion people had watched the video on YouTube and it became number one in music charts all over the world, with appearances on everything from ‘Saturday Night Live’ to Samsung commercials and even a recent business report on Bloomberg TV.

Only days ago, British father Lee O'Donoghue recorded his four-year-old daughter Delilah scolding her two-year-old brother Gabriel after an argument in the playground and uploaded it onto YouTube so his wife could view it. Within hours, the 65 second comical clip had gone viral, chat shows from the US to Australia were calling Lee’s phone for interviews and TV news crews began arriving outside the O’Donoghue house.

Psy has since become a household phenomenon and the O'Donoghues have been signed up by Viral Spiral, a UK firm which specialises in helping YouTube stars to capitalise on their moment of fame. It previously helped a couple earn around $800,000 from a clip of their baby biting his kid brother’s finger.

For Robert Kyncl, Google’s global head of content partnerships and the man responsible for YouTube, this is exactly the kind of news he likes to hear. However, sitting down to speak in Abu Dhabi, he says he now determined that more of this kind of viral friendly content will start being generated in the Middle East.

While there are 167 million videos viewed every day in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), putting the region in the number two spot in the world behind the US and ahead of Brazil, only one hour of YouTube video is uploaded in the MENA per minute.

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“In the Middle East we are seeing a couple of trends,” says Kyncl. “Five percent of our global revenue is coming from the Middle East, which is fantastic and is a very significant number. But only one percent of the content is local, so we have this great gulf between consumption and content, which we should try to fill.”

He is hoping he can start at the top with government organisations and large regional brands. Dubai’s Ruler HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched his own YouTube channel in February this year and Kyncl says he hopes this will trickle “all the way down to users.”

“We need to stimulate the user community to be more active and upload and create great channels that represent their interests… We haven’t done enough of that,” he concedes, but says he is determined to raise the region’s profile and see more residents in the Arab world follow Psy’s example and become the next global YouTube sensation.

“We have hired staff to focus on the local market and you will see more and more in that area. We are speaking to advertisers to localise our approach to advertising to make sure we not only build up great videos but also a great economic model.”

One of the options to maximising content and revenue from the Middle East is to localise content and video streams, he says. “Each market, when we go in, we localise it. Out of eighteen countries in the MENA region, we have localised eight, so we still have ten more to go… Then more and more content follows.”

So far, the eight local domains in the MENA region which have been localised are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen.

The model is beginning to work and Kyncl points to the fact that “filmmakers from the Middle East are winning competitions YouTube have put together… We see where talent is coming from and a lot of the talent is coming from MENA, which is really exciting to see.”

Some of the recent examples include Space Lab competition winner, Egyptian student Amr Mohamed, who won the grand prize for the seventeen-eighteen age category and got his experiment “Can you teach an old spider new tricks?” conducted on the International Space Station on 13 September this year.

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Similarly, at the ‘YouTube Your Film Festival’, two filmmakers from the MENA region — one from Egypt and one from Lebanon — made it into the list of top ten finalists out of around 15,000 submissions.

One of the Arab markets growing rapidly is Saudi Arabia, not just regionally, but globally. Of the 167 million MENA page view per day, 90 million are made in Saudi Arabia, making it the world’s highest number of YouTube views per internet user.

Kyncl also reports that the average Internet user in Saudi watches three times as many videos per day compared to the average internet user in the US and the kingdom leads the region with the most playbacks per clip, followed by Egypt, Morocco and the UAE.

One of the big influences here is the growth of mobile phones in Saudi Arabia. While one in four YouTube clips are viewed on mobiles, the usage is even higher in Saudi.

“The watermark example is Saudi Arabia where 50 percent of consumption is on mobiles, which is amazing,” says Kyncl. “[The mobile] is already the first device in their consumption and we think that is how it will go in other parts of the world… So Saudi Arabia is actually showing us [the future model],” he adds.

Many would argue that the lack of cinemas and theatres and highly regulated TV and music market make Saudi the perfect market for expansion, but its conservative nature may be a massive obstacle.

“The content will come from those who care and create, so it may be conservative content as it is not up to us to judge… We are an open forum... What [content] will come is what will resonate with the viewers,” he believes.

Getting on the topic of conservative and controversial content, the obvious white elephant in the room is the recent controversy over the anti-Islam video ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ which was uploaded by a US filmmaker and sparked violent protests across the Muslim world.

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Expecting the question, Kyncl delegates to the official statement issued by Google: “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere.

“This video — which is widely available on the web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we’ve restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as Saudi Arabia, India and Indonesia.”

Clips of the film posted on YouTube, portray the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) in a negative light and were initially blamed for the death of four US officials, including the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, in the east Libyan city of Benghazi. US and other foreign embassies were also stormed in cities in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Kyncl says balancing freedom of speech and the responsibility that comes with it “is not an easy task” as YouTube is a ground-breaking website and therefore a pioneer in this area.

“That responsibility is different in different places around the world and we contend with it. So what we are learning is how you contend with it when you operate around the globe and operate it within the guidelines of different places.

“You don’t want to give up all the benefits in the process. We react and figure out where the boundaries are and there is no blueprint… When you innovate and are the first it is the hardest job and when you push hard and you bring a lot of good, sometimes also it brings controversy and learn to deal with it.

“Google’s ethos is to innovate… Therefore, we have to contend with issues that are contested and we learn how to deal with that.”

While Kyncl is tussling with the ethics of content, YouTube is still not losing any of its allure and the number of people subscribing has doubled year-on-year.

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At the same time, partner revenue is doubling each year and has done so for the last four years in a row. With the TV sector becoming more and more fragmented and struggling to survive, thousands of YouTube channels are now making six figures annually.

Figures show the top 20 funded channels are currently averaging over a million views a week and more than 25 funded channels have more than 100,000 subscribers, a milestone only two percent of YouTube channels ever reach. Some of the largest advertisers on the site include Toyota, Unilever, American Express, AT&T, Gillette and GM. “We’re now making nearly as much money per viewership hour showing your content in the US as cable networks make showing their content on TV — without sending anyone a cable bill,” a report from Google claims.

In addition to these impressive figures, Kyncl believes YouTube’s social impact will be its real legacy: “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I think YouTube is doing one of the most worthwhile things of companies in the world… It is shattering the barriers and it is levelling the playing field.

“One of the reasons US and American culture has been distributed so well all around the world over the last 20 or 30 years is because it benefitted greatly from the closed system of media… In a closed system those with the biggest scale win.

“So, it was the American companies who could build up the largest distribution of any kind and therefore could build up the largest movie production facilities and make the biggest movies and TV shows and export them very effectively all around the world as they had the most efficient system and benefitted from the scale.”

Kyncl believes “YouTube is making it far more democratic… It allows anyone from around the world to succeed, which means those with less scale can compete with those that have scale.”

From Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ phenomenon to the O’Donoghue’s ‘You Need To Toughen Up A Bit’ clip, everyone can compete on the same level.

“[Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’] would not have been possible in the past… that he would make it to global scale. The same can happen in news, the same can happen in sport, the same can happen in entertainment and the same can happen in politics… People from different religions and beliefs are brought to live in the same venue,” he says.

YouTube is on fire: Views, uploads, sharing, partnerships and advertisers are all up

Thousands of channels are now making six figures annually.

Big advertisers include Toyota, Unilever, American Express, AT&T, Gillette and GM.

YouTube teamed up with the International Olympic Committee to bring the Games live to 64 countries in Africa and Asia.

In the last year YouTube signed deals with all six major movie studios — including most recently Fox — and television studios to bring TV shows like Parks & Recreation and Breaking Bad, and movies like Avatar and Transformers, to YouTube.

167 million video views occur each day on average in MENA, putting the region in the number two spot in the world.

90 million video views in Saudi Arabia per day.

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