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As YouTube renews channels, will media companies make the cut?

Companies like Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and SB Nation took part in YouTube’s original programming project. But their viewership can’t always hit the high levels of more entertainment-centric options.

When YouTube announced it was creating hundreds of new channels for original content, video producers of all stripes — including news companies — paid attention. While the biggest push was towards entertainment, a small collection of news producers, like Reuters and The Wall Street Journal, got in on the channel project.

Now, it’s renewal season for the channels, and YouTube is saying they expect to offer new deals to just 40 percent of their partners from the first year. While YouTube’s exact criteria for choosing which channels will be renewed is not clear, the amount of time people spend watching videos could be a deciding factor. And in terms of video views, there is a gap between the top-tier of entertainment channels on YouTube and news channels.

Some of the highest watched channels on YouTube, produced by Red Bull, Warner Music Group, and the WWE, pull in between 3-7 million views in a typical week, according to rankings from Deadline. Viewership of channels from the Journal and Reuters vary quite a bit from week to week, but the Journal is often in a 500,000 to 1,000,000 view range, with Reuters between 200,000 and 400,000. (The numbers are broadly similar in YouTube rankings compiled by Ad Age.)

Were Reuters or the Journal not to be renewed for the project — and there’s no reason to think they will or won’t at this point — there’d be nothing stopping them from continuing to operate their channels. But they’d be doing that without funding and other support YouTube provides as part of the agreement.

Editors, producers, and executives at Reuters, the Journal, and other media companies with YouTube channels were reluctant to share their renewal status, but many said the project provided a needed boost to their video efforts and helped establish a stronger foothold on the site.

“The appetite [for video] is there,” said Barclay Palmer, the executive producer overseeing online video for Reuters. “It’s just a matter of which outlets can embrace it, find it, and deliver it in the most dynamic way.”

When Reuters launched its channel in January, it debuted 10 shows featuring different journalists on staff. The programs varied, but many stuck with an interview or feature format. As they’ve studied their audience and received feedback, they’ve made changes to certain shows, Palmer said. Viewers will watch longer videos, he said, but online videos can’t afford to be sluggish, he said. “You got to try and do things to pull people in and get people watching,” says Palmer.

Since launch, Reuters TV has racked up 8.6 million views on YouTube. Views are roughly split in half between embedded videos and YouTube.com, Palmer told me, and the average time spent viewing videos is 2:08. The fact that Reuters and other news channels are outperformed by entertainment-focused efforts isn’t surprising, Palmer said, noting that online viewing habits will mirror consumption on TV. But Palmer thinks partnerships with platforms like YouTube can be beneficial to both sides. “If (contract renewal) doesn’t happen I think this company has been excited by creating a new business in online programming,” he said. “I think we will continue no matter what. It’s been a very good partnership.”

Online video has seen nothing but growth in recent years, but news companies have sometimes had trouble taking advantage of the broader gains. Regardless of cost or prior success, the reason news outlets keep trying video is because it can command premium advertising rates and is increasingly accessible on multiple devices like phones and tablets. YouTube’s channel project is a play at reaching those new audiences by making programming that, while not exactly like TV, has production values that edge closer to what viewers expect from television.

The strategy YouTube took for that was to ramp up original content by offering more than $100 million in advances to channel partners. One condition of the deals is that YouTube sells and controls ads on the videos until they recoup their investment through ad revenue, which could be up to $5 million depending on each channel’s agreement. Now with the renewals on the line, YouTube likely wants to see companies that not only have a solid audience, but a sustained method of making money. A spokeswoman for YouTube declined to comment on the channel renewal agreements.

The Wall Street Journal currently splits the rights to sell ads against videos with YouTube, Dow Jones spokeswoman Sara Blask told me. Mark Fishkin, vice president of digital sales and marketing for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, said pre-roll advertising on YouTube has been something of a success. At launch, the Journal’s channel had a full compliment of ads for automotive, luxury, and consumer goods, he said. “The nice thing is, not only does the WSJ Live audience mirror the audience of the entire network, which is affluent and influential, the folks on YouTube seem to be the same upscale, 40-somethings we tend to get here,” he said.

The Journal benefits from the fact that WSJ Live was already established on other platforms, meaning there was already a team in place to sell ads. But Fishkin said being on YouTube is part of the Journal’s broad digital strategy to be everywhere. That’s why you can find WSJ Live on Hulu, Roku, Apple TV, and Xbox. The Journal is now doing more than 100 hours of original video a month, Fishkin told me, so it makes sense to try to find as many ways as possible to expose that to new audienes. While Fishkin wouldn’t talk specifically about the details of the Journal’s contract renewal with YouTube, he said they’re happy with the partnership and have seen steady increases in video views.

At Vox Media, home of SB Nation, The Verge, and Polygon, the YouTube channel program has been a way to scale their video efforts at an accelerated pace, said Chad Mumm, head of Vox Studios, the video production arm of the company. Similar to Reuters, Vox used its channel deal to launch a variety of shows, with the SB Nation brand in particular. On SB Nation’s channel, you’ll find interviews, discussion shows, narrative features, team reports, and commentary. Also, like Reuters, SB Nation drew on the talent it already had, within its network of sports blogs. But Mumm said one of the biggest changes they’ve made is to produce more real-time and in-the-moment video that ties to sporting events before or after they occur. “We’ve been very happy with the storytelling we’ve been able to do,” Mumm said. “We’ve seen huge growth in this network approach.”

Media companies have gone through different opinions about YouTube — at times preferring to build their own video platforms (using third-party providers like Brightcove) and at times wanting to access the reach and audience of the king of online video. The financial incentives YouTube has provided — and will continue to provide for some — change that evaluation. When I asked Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff why his company partnered with YouTube, his answer echoed a kind of long-view thinking many in the media are taking with YouTube. “YouTube will be an important part of our mix and an important platform for us,” Bankoff said. “There’s a big audience there.”

Image by Josh Hikes used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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