Meet Youtube's screen queen

Technology | Wendy Lee 11 Jan 2021

Seven years ago, when Kelly Merryman arrived at YouTube, the dust had just cleared on a US$1 billion (HK$7.8 billion) lawsuit with Viacom that had dragged on for years.

The New York cable television giant had complained that Google's YouTube had knowingly allowed its users to post Viacom videos, including clips from South Park and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, on its site without permission.

The case was settled in 2014, but highlighted the fraught relations YouTube had with media companies that viewed the video sharing site as a competitor that profited off unauthorized clips of their popular shows.

"There was more trust that needed to be built," said Merryman, YouTube's vice president of content partnerships.

Since then, she has worked tirelessly to change Hollywood's perception of YouTube from pariah to partner. She's persuaded media companies to use the vast reach of YouTube to promote their shows and films. The premium content also benefits YouTube, which takes in revenue from ads placed on the videos and shares that money with partners.

The growing ties have strengthened during the Covid-19 pandemic, as studios have increasingly relied on YouTube to lure younger audiences to new streaming platforms.

Studios including NBCUniversal used YouTube as one of the digital platforms for releasing more than 10 paid video-on-demand titles last year, including Trolls World Tour. The Trolls movie brought in US$95 million during its first three weeks in online sales across a variety of platforms.

"We've gone from the platform that made them no money and they were suing to the platform that is paying out massive amounts of money and lots of usage for them," said Robert Kyncl, YouTube's chief business officer. "Kelly is right in the center of all of this."

The 44-year-old former Netflix executive oversees a team of more than 300 people in the United States, Canada and Latin America, including staffers who work with hundreds of content partners.

Part of her role is to serve as a bridge between media partners and other aspects of YouTube. Her team works with product, engineering, operations and marketing colleagues at YouTube.

"What I found at YouTube as well as at Netflix is nothing is a substitute for sitting with your partners and understanding their concerns, their ideas, and the areas in which you can be helpful to them," she said.

Growing up, Merryman loved theater, performing as a dancer in Singin' in the Rain in high school. But she found her calling on the business side of entertainment. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a finance degree and worked as a consultant at Bain & Co. "I quickly recognized that I didn't want to be the person just creating the slides that helped someone else change their organization. I wanted to be the change."

She later went to Harvard Business School for her MBA and became an executive director of digital services and distribution at Sony in 2004.

Three years later, she became vice president of content acquisition at Netflix.

At Netflix, she developed a knack for translating what the streamer was doing in a way that traditional media companies would understand.

A decade ago, when Netflix was trying to get more TV shows on its platform, Merryman was instrumental in brokering a deal with Warner Bros, said Kyncl, who worked with her at Netflix.

Merryman also saw an invaluable opportunity for Netflix to expand globally. When she told her boss, chief content officer Ted Sarandos, that she planned to focus on international growth full time, he supported the idea, but warned her that she would lose her job if it didn't work out, she recalled. Her bet paid off.

"Kelly was so perfect for Netflix in those days," said Sarandos, now Netflix's co-chief executive. "She is smart, curious and a hard working problem solver, and in those days it was all new and full of problems."

Kyncl recruited her for her current job in late 2014. "I knew that I needed somebody like that, who's strategic and who's an operator to come into our fast-growing business," he said.

One of Merryman's first tasks was to deepen YouTube's relationship with the biggest and most powerful studio, the Walt Disney Company. Like many studios, Disney was concerned about how YouTube managed videos that included pirated content. Merryman addressed those concerns by touting Google's technology, including ContentID, that flags unauthorized content for media partners and allows them to choose whether to take those videos down or profit from ads placed on them.

During discussions over YouTube's live TV service in 2016, Disney wondered whether YouTube could make it easier for viewers to find all of ESPN's live events playing at a given time, recalled Justin Connolly, Disney's president of platform distribution.

YouTube TV did not have that feature at its launch, but she tasked a group from her team to explore the idea. "How is it that as a consumer, you can actually choose between 12 to 20 different options, all on a single screen?" Connolly said. "That's not something that everybody can do and figure out. It was a good example of bringing the creativity of an executive who understands what it is we're trying to create."

Partnerships with Disney and other media companies have helped boost YouTube's profile and generate more money for the company.

YouTube made US$15 billion in ad revenue in 2019, up 36 percent from 2018. Its partners have also been crucial to YouTube expanding its live TV offering, YouTube TV, which has more than three million subscribers and more than 85 networks.

YouTube has a massive global audience, with more than one billion hours of video watched on its platform each day. When the pandemic hit, viewership skyrocketed and it became a haven for media companies looking to expand and connect with their audiences as productions shut down or scaled back.

Late night hosts pivoted to filming themselves at home, sharing interviews on YouTube. YouTube organized two interviews with The Daily Show's Trevor Noah and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, driving more than 18 million views.

Movies set to open exclusively in theaters, like Trolls World Tour, were instead simultaneously distributed on platforms, including YouTube.

YouTube has also been a way for media companies to market their streaming services to younger audiences. A person watching a clip of a show on YouTube is 33 percent more likely to watch the program on TV, according to Nielsen.

"When someone shows up to YouTube, it becomes a powerful tool to create social dynamics in terms of communities around Star Wars, Pixar or Marvel that we can then use in terms of 'pay to get more of this, the only way to get it is on Disney+,'" Connolly said.

NBCUniversal's streaming platform, Peacock, has also has promoted itself on YouTube. One of the studio's popular YouTube channels is The Office.

To be sure, YouTube faces more competition from Facebook and rivals such as TikTok that specialize in 15-second videos. In September, YouTube launched Shorts, a feature that allows users in India to record short videos, with plans to bring it to more countries.

YouTube has also pivoted away from its earlier ambitions of competing directly with Hulu through its premium subscription service. In 2019, the video sharing company said it would focus more of its original productions. "There's fierce competition for eyeballs and for people to be figuring out the best way for storytellers to get their stories out and to grow the value of those franchises," Merryman said.

Merryman's friends believe she's up to the challenge. "Kelly wants to win all the time, and it's contagious," said Sean Carey, who worked with her at Sony and Netflix. "She's certainly worked harder than anybody."

Los Angeles Times (TNS)



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