Want to track the arc of the TV Revolution, where video is available on countless screens from millions of creators, all transforming how we entertain and inform ourselves (you know, like we like to do here at TVRev)? You could do worse than track the arc of Robert Kyncl’s career, as he’s helped make the Revolution happen.
Kyncl (rhymes with “pencil”) was born in the former Eastern European country of Czechoslovakia, a heritage still betrayed by his noticeable accent. He grew up in a country still under oppressive Communist rule, with minimal access to entertainment and news that wasn’t tightly controlled by the state.
There were few (legal) outlets for books, newspapers, TV, radio, film and other media. The few that were available reflected the party line. And there was no such thing as public Internet access.
Fast forward to the United States, where immigrant Kyncl picked up degrees from the State University of New York at New Paltz, and from Pepperdine University. It was an era when cable TV was ascendant and the movie business was still consistently making money. The Internet, meanwhile, was finally peeking into public view, if hardly the baseline technology that it is today.
Out of school, Kyncl’s career started in that most traditional of Hollywood launching pads, the mailroom of a talent agency. Later he worked at Mutual Film Co., a film distributor, before joining Netflix at a time when the company was still relatively small. More importantly, it was “still sending DVDs in the mail,” because of the bandwidth limitations of the Internet that were only slowly easing.
As those limitations further eased, Kyncl would manage the company’s sometimes difficult transition to streaming video, a shift predicated on several key technological and consumer changes:
- Faster and cheaper bandwidth to a broad enough population to make streaming video a viable delivery method;
- Ever-increasing dissatisfaction with cable TV’s poor customer service, lack of alternatives and rising costs;
- Openness to digital content delivery and the almost bewildering range of programming choices it enabled on demand.
Then, in 2011, Kyncl made what now seems like the logical next step away from traditional Hollywood: He jumped to YouTube, the Google-owned video-content subsidiary then about five years old, and more notorious for surfing squirrels than influencers with millions of followers and huge cultural footprints.
Kyncl is now YouTube’s Chief Business Officer, helping oversee the site’s shift to cultural omnipresence, new ventures such as the SVOD service YouTube Red and its original programming, all while facing controversies such as the past year’s “Ad-pocalypse” advertiser boycotts.
He’s also just released, with co-author Maany Peyvan, a new book, Streampunks: YouTube and the Rebels
I talked with Kyncl and Peyvan about the book, the digital-video transformation Kyncl has helped create, and what it all means for Hollywood and the new creators.
The Streampunks, he said, are “a new class of content creators, new storytellers with new storytelling formats. Today, when everyone talks about online video, they really talk about movies and TV shows not being transmitted through the cable and satellite system, but through the Internet. That’s not what this book is about. It’s about new storytellers and new storytelling formats.”
But it’s also about the fact that these new storytellers have managed to not only build huge followings online but, in many cases, huge businesses offline. He pointed to cosmetics queen Michelle Phan and Jenny Doan, the Missouri grandmother who built an empire around quilting, as examples.
Just as importantly, though people think of YouTube influencers as being Millennials, and young ones at that, they can be all ages, as shown by Doan and to a lesser extent, by the Green brothers, Hank and John.
“They started a community that they called Nerd Fighters and these are people who love intellectualism, who feel like they shouldn’t be ashamed to be enthusiastically nerdy about different topics,” Peyvan said. “That’s not something that high school kids really had 10, 15 years ago. They didn’t have that warm embrace. It was a very different culture, and I think that these are the communities we see popping up more and more online and they by far represent what’s great about online communities in general.”
Somewhat counter-intuitively, many of the biggest influencers online have managed to become best-selling authors, that is highly successful participants in a far older mass medium, books.
“I think people like to engage with their YouTube stars in many different ways,” Kyncl said. “Once you’ve built a relationship, which is what you can do on YouTube, then it transcends all media. Once you like somebody, once you like what they stand for, you want more of the content that they create, whether it’s in adjacent areas, whether it’s books, whether it’s commerce, whether it’s theater, whatever it is, they follow them.”
That kind of close relationship with fans is even starting to percolate into Hollywood circles, Peyvan said.
“I think you do see much more of an embrace of social media and fan engagement on the Hollywood side,” Peyvan said. “dAnd I think it creates such a more enriching fan experience too. Like, if you love Taylor Swift’s music, if you love Kevin Durant playing basketball, if you love Jennifer Lawrence’s movies, you just have so much more exposure to their craft and their talent and what makes them special by being able to engage with them.”
Kyncl acknowledged some of the ongoing controversies facing YouTube, including the “Ad-pocalypse” boycott by advertisers unhappy about seeing their brands next to, and financing, videos by terrorists and other bad guys.
“Obviously, that’s something we’ve taken very seriously, because advertisers and creators are both the lifeblood of YouTube,” Kyncl said. “It’s our job to make sure both are really happy with their performance on YouTube.
In response, the company “increased the bar on the standards for videos that are monetized,” gave advertisers stronger safety controls on where their ads show up, applied machine-learning research to enforce their new policies, and have begun reporting to third-party monitoring agencies.”
Brands, of course, can be more than just the advertisers on YouTube shows. They can also be the show, sometimes quite entertainingly.
“They don’t just have to be in the commercials,” Peyvan said. “They’re not bounded by 15- or 30-second spots that they have to just fill in. They have a creative canvas they can use to explore what their brand needs, and in the book there are several examples from Dove, P&G and Always. Samsung is another creator we’ve talked about that has done amazing creative collaborations with Casey Neistat and other YouTube creators. I think it’s a time of experimentation.”
Kyncl said YouTube is pleased with the progress of its ad-free venture, the subscription VOD service Red.
“No. 1, we’re really pleased with the progress,” Kyncl said. “We’re right on plan against our projections. It’s absolutely possible for a site like YouTube to build a subscription (service) from within. It’s been fun. I’ve heard from many people about it and it continues to grow rapidly.”