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'YouTube should be the platform for the next million channels'

In conversation with BT's Rajeev Dubey and Ajita Shashidhar, CEO Susan Wojcicki talks about YouTube's ambition and her unflinching faith in YouTube's ad-supported business model. Edited excerpts:
Rajeev Dubey & Ajita Shashidhar   New Delhi     Print Edition: June 2, 2019
'YouTube should be the platform for the next million channels'
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki (Photograph by Rachit Goswami)

Q. The world thinks you are a media company. You are convinced you are a technology platform. How do you marry the two realities? What is the vision?

A. The vision for YouTube is that we become a platform for the next million channels. When I was here (in India) in 1991, there was one government broadcaster. Then satellite and cable channels were introduced, and now there are hundreds. Earlier, we couldn't have millions of channels as technology didn't enable it. The channels would have been too hard to find. We didn't have search or recommendations or personalisation. Technology enables millions of channels on very specific topics. Our vision for YouTube is that we are the platform that enables the next million channels.

Q. But regulators still see you as a media company and you will always be under those regulations.

A. We are not creating content; we create a very small set of content. We did an original show (ARRived) out of India a while ago. YouTube has millions of channels in India, so our focus is to become a platform for enabling all these other channels. We fall under a lot of platform regulations. But we are not providing content. People at YouTube do not create content; they are not editors or script writers or actors and actresses. They are engineers and programme managers who work with our creators and ad sales people. Most of YouTube is about the next million channels which tend to involve creators.

Q. Do you see advertising-led models being threatened over time? Apart from originals, YouTube has also launched subscription-based premium offerings.

A. We recently launched YouTube Music and YouTube Premium, which have an S-ward (subscriber-based) model, but that is mostly about having a music-listening experience. It's not like Netflix, with large original content. Our spend on original content is small compared to our spends on advertising-related content. Our focus is to have a premium music experience, which is YouTube Music. It's ad-free, and you can also listen to it offline. Where we are really unique is that we can provide the next million channels. A lot of S-ward providers are focussed on movies and shows. We are strong in educational content: how to play an instrument, how to fix your car... We have personalities who do yoga shows, as opposed to creating the next Game of Thrones or a Bollywood movie. That expertise is very different from the expertise we have.

Q. Broadcaster-led platforms initially came up as ad-led platforms, but they are now calling their service 'freemium'. We are told they are not as successful as they haven't invested much on original content. So, isn't it important to have original content?

A. Everything on YouTube is original. The way we acquire it is different. We don't acquire by hiring actors and a show runner. We acquire it by saying upload your content to YouTube.

Q. You don't believe in the Netflix or Amazon Prime strategy?

A. I do believe in it, it's just not our model. A big set of people are competing for shows and movies and trying to build original content. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are doing it. YouTube is different. Our technology and skills are very different. You just upload content and we make sure there is no spam or abuse. YouTube offers a different value to people who are interested in entertainment or who have a passion to become famous, to have a global audience and be able to do that as a career. Both models are very important.

Q. You don't see yourself doing the rounds of film festivals acquiring content?

A. No. The reason I am so clear about it is because we have spent a long time thinking. The reason we decided against is that we saw other people who were doing an excellent job. What isn't happening is providing all this content in new areas. That's where we are the leader, and that's what only we can do.

Q. What is bigger - subscription or advertising?

A. We are predominantly advertising-supported.

Q. Will that continue?

A. Yes, it will. Google is an advertising-supported company. That's where Google does well. We have lots of ad sales people, a lot of expertise in building advertising systems. Advertising is a very big market. The US has lost a lot of TV users. A lot of them are watching their shows on Netflix and Netflix is not ad-supported. The ad dollars have to go somewhere.

Q. Where does India stand in your scheme of things?

A. It is one of the largest markets. We have 265 million users, growing very fast, thanks to the Internet becoming affordable. We are incredibly excited. YouTube offers a very compelling set of solutions for India, because our content is about the next million channels and very personalised. Be it learning, health, safety, fitness, lifestyle, or gaming, we are able to offer it in all Indian languages.

Q. In terms of ad revenue, where does India stand?

A. Ad sales is an emerging area. In ad markets you always see the users go first, then you see the advertisers catch up. We have seen explosive growth. We are working with advertisers to help them understand how to reach the user through digital advertising. But it will take time.

Q. What kind of questions are advertisers asking?

A. Advertisers always first ask about reach. Our numbers of 265 million? (are) a compelling. We estimate that around 40 million users come online every year in India. Next year, our user base will be 300 million. The second metric is how much they (advertisers) pay and how much do they get back. Did it raise brand awareness? In general, they believe this is an important part of the future.

Q. How has the messaging changed? Are advertisers more keen on content integration?

A. Incredibly, some people like to watch the ads, but the advertising on YouTube has changed because it causes advertisers to create compelling creatives. We also have ads below the video, and if you want to download an app or engage, you can click right there and engage with the advertiser on the video.

Q. How often do you skip the ad yourself?

A. I have the premium service on my phone, but I sometimes log out of it, as I want to see the ad. I am the CEO. I need to see what is happening, I need to see the ads.

Q. It's election time in India. How are you ensuring that YouTube is not seen as biased?

A. We take bias very seriously. Ad transparency has been very important to be able to understand who is spending the dollars. India is the first market where we have launched fact checking. We have launched this with interested partners, including the India Today Group, to enable fact checking on our search results. So, when there is breaking news, that news is focussed on trusted sources. We just launched a breaking news service in Hindi to support Indian languages.

Q. Is there a way artificial intelligence and machine learning can prevent live casting of events such as Christchurch (New Zealand) terror attack?

A. We enable people to flag videos. If it is marked as urgent, we remove it within minutes. In this case, in the first 5-7 minutes, the person was in his car, driving around. What made this event hard-pressed is that it was a made-for-Internet incident. Because of that a huge amount of video (content) was uploaded on to various platforms, and we had to take it off. We decided to remove thousands of videos uploaded without reviewing them. It was the first time we were required to do that; our reviewers were not able to keep up with the volume.

Q. There will always be undesirable content, which you can't take off as the volumes would be growing. How do you deal with this dilemma?

A. We use a lot of machine learning to identify those videos and give them to reviewers. Yes, people can come up with content that is close to the line, so we have come up with a few solutions. In 2017, we identified a set of this content, in which we removed features such as like and comment, and there is a warning. Those interested will have to click, and only then can they see it. It will also come to India this year.

@rajeevdubey, @ajitashashidhar

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