The billboards around Manhattan's monstrous Javits Center and the screens in the brand-new 7 line subway stop a block away all touted YouTube's originals and stars in preparation for the online video giant's annual upfront -- #Brandcast. This is where YouTube debuts new initiatives, celebrates the past year's successes and explains the near future. Tech events of any scale retain their intrinsic eagerness, obvious liquidity and awkwardness, and the #Brandcast was no #exception. What YouTube does, and doesn't, all but defines the role of ad-supported online video in modern media's near future. The future is, much like the past, ads.
New products were the whole of the hour-plus presentation, which was introduced by YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and hosted by Toronto-borne YouTube star Lily Singh (who, while often cheesy, offered one nugget of wisdom and nudge to the moneyed in the audience: "Gone are the days of testing this platform.") Near the end of the massively scaled presentation -- which up to that point had been visited by Big Bird, the commissioner of the NBA, a pre-taped segment from James Corden that rightly pointed out online video's effect on the late-night wars, a performance from Andra Day and a false fire alarm that sent dozens to the exit -- Wojcicki introduced the real star of the evening, a new product: Google Preferred Breakout Videos.
"Now you can be sure your brand will be featured alongside the next big thing," Wojcicki said, pointing to the new product's ability to promise "brand friendly" activations on breakout viral videos. By way of example, Wojcicki pointed to Silento and the "Nae Nae," last year's No. 1 trending video as an example. Naturally, Silento himself took to the stage in a pink Power Wheels truck alongside an impossibly cute little girl and huge number of dancers, all doing the... well, guess. "We reach more [18-49 year-olds] during prime time than the top 10 TV shows combined," she said.
The week has brought equally notable news for the platform, principally the transfer of $250 million in advertising dollars from television to YouTube by the research and ad buying firm Magna Global. This is something the company's head of content Robert Kyncl has also been pointing to religiously.
Meanwhile, the company is still drawing pointed criticism from the music industry -- which may have balked at the night's production values. In fact, a press release from the BPI, Britain's recording industry trade body, and the IFPI, the global recording industry trade body, arrived in my inbox somewhere between Big Bird's "Charlie Bit My Finger" joke and a Toyota executive's presentation. The release further hammered the nail of the "value gap," a commingling of what the record business perceives as a low royalty rate and its weak position in negotiating with a safe harbor-reliant company. As Graham Henderson, president and CEO of Music Canada puts it: "The value gap is a striking example of how wealth has shifted from those who create content -- our artists and their partners -- to the large companies that build their platforms on that content."
Of course, music isn't really YouTube's core focus -- the company announced plans this week to launch a cable-like television subscription plan some time early next year. Aside from Andra Day's performance and a post-dinner epic from Sia, music was largely absent from the conversation onstage at Javits.