Viacom is cozying up to YouTube as the TV giant plays catchup in digital

Nick Cannon.
Rich Fury/Invision/AP

  • Viacom is rolling out an original show exclusively on YouTube for its kids network Nickelodeon, after fighting with YouTube parent company Alphabet for years.
  • It’s the first of many original projects planned by the recently formed Viacom Digital Studios.
  • The cable TV giant, which has a portfolio of networks aimed at younger audiences, is playing catch-up in digital media.

A media company announcing an original series project with a digital outlet these days doesn’t necessarily raise eyebrows – except maybe when the names involved are Viacom, Nickelodeon and YouTube.

Last week, during its annual upfront sales presentation to advertisers, the kids network Nickelodeon announced that it was planning a series this spring featuring Nick Cannon on YouTube.

Consider that:

  • Parent company Viacom had famously been embroiled in a legal battle with YouTube-owner Google over copyright infringement from 2007 to 2014.
  • Cable networks have generally focused on using the web for promoting their TV series, and have been hesitant to put money into original digital series – in part to not alienate their cable distribution partners, who pay them significant fees to carry their networks.
  • Viacom in particular has not focused on developing digital audiences.
  • Not to mention that YouTube has been embroiled in multiple bad stories involving kids on the platform.

But it’s a “new era” at Viacom, said Kelly Day, former chief business officer at the youth-focused digital content company AwesomenessTV, who was named president of the newly launched Viacom Digital Studios division last November.

Viacom is trying to embrace digital programming without leaning too hard on TV properties

Day says she has a clear mandate: to build audiences on the biggest tech platforms by creating native content. The newly announced Nick Cannon-helmed competition show “Musical Dares,” which was born as a skit on Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice franchise, is just a “sneak preview” of the emerging strategy, she told Business Insider.

“[Viacom CEO] Bob Bakish has made pretty dramatic changes,” said Day. Bakish, who assumed his role in late 2016, shook up the cable giant last year by announcing a focus on six flagship networks, while deemphasizing others.

Since Bakish took the reigns at Viacom, his focus has been almost entirely about shoring up the company’s linear TV ratings. That’s meant rebranding the Spike network as Paramount, and talking up modest growth for the likes of MTV.

But included in the mostly TV-centric strategy revamp unveiled in 2017 were plans to “invest in short form content,” reported The Hollywood Reporter.

“He’s not giving lip service to digital,” Day said. “He really wants to diversify and make it clear that we are not just cable TV brands. We know that cable TV viewership is shrinking … we have to think about the business model long term and how [new outlets] can it support these brands. So we are really focused on social and mobile.”

Nick Cannon is making a show for Viacom on YouTube
Viacom

From digital marketing to digital programming

Day said that while Viacom has already amassed a large social media footprint of 100 million plus followers, those channels have lagged when it comes to engagement. Social media had been managed by the company’s marketing division and was focused on promotion.

Indeed, until recently both Hollywood and Silicon Valley executives often complained that Viacom was adrift when it came to figuring out digital media.

“We weren’t thinking as a programmer on these platforms,” Day said. “To date they were not super effective at driving people elsewhere. And we know that some of these users may or may not be watching TV anymore. That’s why this team was founded.”

The team includes 300 people focused on creating digital projects for four Viacom networks: MTV, BET, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon.

The plan is to find formats and series that work for Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Initially, Viacom wants to focus on driving engagement and learning how to program via these outlets, and not worry about making money until down the road. “It’s an investment,” Day said.

A different view on YouTube

YouTube is priority one for the new group. “Historically it has been underinvested here,” Day said. But that’s changing fast. Over the past few months Nickelodeon has doubled its production output on YouTube, and the channel’s subscriber base has eclipsed 3 million.

The Nick Cannon-led show is being conceived of as a “tentpole” for the channel, Day said, and the show is also likely to end up on YouTube’s kids app. “Musical Dares” is much like Musical Chairs, only kids may find themselves sitting on spinning or vibrating chairs, or getting slime dumped on their heads.

Bronwen O’Keefe, Nickelodeon’s EVP of Live Action and Movies, said that clips of the musical performance show “Lip Synch Battle Shorties” had performed particularly well on Nick’s YouTube channel, giving the network confidence that a music-themed game would work.

“A big part of our strategy this year is to be really mindful of the idea, ‘How do we reach kids?'” she said. “And we’re not blind to the fact that kids are interested in YouTube.”

But the networks wants to make sure it’s not just using YouTube to dump leftover clips of its TV shows. “This is a show,” she said. “This is developed as a show, not something like the B team.”

Kids programmers and advertisers have to be cautious on the web

Of course, Nickelodeon’s YouTube ramp up comes following a string of controversies regarding kids and YouTube. A New York Times investigation found that questionable videos had found their way onto the kids app. Meanwhile, YouTube has had to deal with advertisers’ ads running next to creepy videos featuring adults dressed as kids characters.

It’s worth pointing out that according to its community guidelines, YouTube is aimed at consumers aged 13 and older.

Day said that she’s “not worried,” noting that there are “lots of kids on YouTube … and this is a show for kids. Brand safety is a huge priority for us, and we’ve been at the forefront of that issue.”

O’Keefe added that Nickelodeon has full control over what ends up on its YouTube channel. “Nobody is more well versed than us in how you have to be careful with kids on the web,” she said.

Beyond Nickelodeon and YouTube, Day’s group is exploring shows for platforms like Snapchat Discover and Facebook Watch. Next month, the company is hosting its first ever ‘Newfront,’ a presentation to media buyers and brands that is essentially the digital answer to the TV upfronts, when each network introduces its lineup of upcoming shows.

So expect lots of new projects. Day likened what her team is doing to how digital media companies (like her old company AwesomenessTV) have been able to quickly crank out content without a lot of legacy obstacles.

“We can be fast moving and agile just like them. And we have this massive scale.”

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