BBC Worldwide's YouTube strategy is evolving

James May on Headsqueeze Head Squeeze is an original YouTube channel fronted by James May

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YouTube has the potential to make traditional broadcasters nervous. It has 1 billion unique users every month and is making original content for some of its channels. It's no secret that professional, well-funded content will lure a growing number of people to spend more time on the global video-sharing platform, a strategy that's already working.

BBC Worldwide got in on the game early, partnering up with YouTube soon after it was acquired by Google in 2006 for $1.65bn. 'We were looking at it as much more of an exciting opportunity than a threat,' says Worldwide's chief digital officer Daniel Heaf. 'I think that characterises the way we think about digital. We've always made lots of volumes of content available on YouTube and we have built up a network of channels over time.'

Start Quote

Daniel Heaf

We have a team of people working on YouTube and we're making tens if not hundreds of changes a day”

End Quote Daniel Heaf Chief Digital Officer, BBC Worldwide

Worldwide now has nine channels on YouTube, with two of these original content channels. Earth Unplugged and Head Squeeze, fronted by Top Gear presenter James May, have launched in the last few months. Both have a focus on science and nature, and this is not a coincidence.

Heaf says he wanted original content that plays to the BBC's strengths. 'The BBC's natural history is the best in the world and recognised as such. So a natural place for us to start thinking about what YouTube audiences want is to start in an area where we have a competitive advantage.'

The new channels feature several video strands, pitched generally to a younger audience. Earth Unplugged (made in conjunction with the Natural History Unit) has an exclusive spin-off from tv show Deadly 60, in which dangerous animals have showdowns. Head Squeeze, meanwhile, has a strand in which May tries to answer big science questions. Past topics have asked whether robots will ever develop feelings or if evolution is complete.

Free for now

Head Squeeze is made in partnership with 360Production, a multiplatform content creator; both original channels are free to their subscribers. But how long will all the BBC content on YouTube remain free?

YouTube in numbers

  • More than 1 billion unique users visit YouTube each month
  • Over 6 billion hours of video are watched every month, a 50% increase on the year before
  • 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute
  • 70% of YouTube traffic comes from outside the US
  • Localized in 56 countries and across 61 languages
  • Has more than 1 million creators from over 30 countries around the world earning money from YouTube videos

Source: YouTube

'We are going to be going into the download-to-earn space in YouTube at some point,' predicts Worldwide's digital leader. The ambition is to eventually charge for premium content on the platform, whether it's a full series of Doctor Who or the latest instalment of Top Gear.

In May, Google's video-streaming giant announced a pilot programme that would charge a subscription fee for premium channels with a small group of its partners. 'This is just the beginning,' boasted YouTube's company blog. At the moment BBC Worldwide has not come on board with this group, but it's watching what happens closely and building the foundation that could take advantage of it.

'We are building a scale,' Heaf confirms. The scale seems to be growing. According to recent figures, the nine channels have 1bn views and just under 4m subscribers. The BBC Worldwide-branded channel leads the way with 3.7m unique users in May. Top Gear is close behind in unique users (3.6m) and also has the largest subscriber base with 2.6m; it added about 200,000 new subscribers last month. This would bring it near YouTube's 50 most popular channels by subscribers.

Heaf claims not to be overly concerned about subscribers, who are mostly outside the UK. What he wants is 'engagement and reach'. 'How many minutes of BBC content are they engaging with? Are they coming in, watching for five seconds and leaving? That's poor engagement. Or are they staying for two or three videos?'

'Right direction'

According to recent figures, visitors to YouTube have been increasing their viewing time each month, from 3bn hours in May 2012 to 6bn hours in May 2013. In terms of the BBC's performance, Heaf says confidently that 'we are trending in the right direction at this time'.

BBC Worldwide on YouTube

  • Nine channels - BBC Worldwide, Top Gear, BBC America, EastEnders, BBC Earth, BBC Food, Doctor Who, Earth Unplugged, Head Squeeze
  • The entire portfolio had nearly 13m unique users in May 2013
  • Best performers are BBC Worldwide-branded channel and Top Gear
  • Top Gear has the highest number of subscribers with 2.6m; BBC Worldwide trails behind with 638,000
  • BBC Food has the smallest number of unique users with 74,000 as of May 2013; EastEnders has the smallest number of subscribers with 66,000
  • To date, the channels have had over 1bn views and just under 4m subscribers

Getting to this point means putting time and energy into the nine channels, which are looked after by a mixture of in-house and outsourced expertise. 'We have a team of people working on YouTube and we're making tens if not hundreds of changes a day,' the Worldwide executive explains.

Collaborations with YouTube content creators have proved to be successful. Heaf singles out a video clip narrated by Ze Frank, an American online performance artist and composer, about the star-nosed mole. It has had more than half a million hits.

'We change what we make every day based on how popular or not the content is,' says Heaf. At the end of the day, he adds, the platform is about analysing data and reacting to it.

The chief digital officer accepts that YouTube is also a platform for publicising BBC programmes, but he stresses that it's crucially revenue generating and profit generating.

Ad revenue

It's therefore not surprising that Heaf defends the use of prominent ads, calling them 'a much more satisfying user experience' than what you would get on traditional live television. The ads have the potential to be big money spinners, but YouTube typically takes about 45% of revenue generated from the ads on its videos from its uploading partners.

According to an infographic produced by MDG Advertising in June, the top 1000 channels on YouTube make an average of $23,000 a month in ad revenue. Gagnam Style, the most popular video on YouTube ever, with over 1bn views, generated $870,000 in ad revenue from YouTube.

Heaf says BBC Worldwide's digital businesses now contribute more to the bottom line than they used to, bringing more money back to the corporation for reinvestment in programmes. The annual report for 2011/12 puts the figure at 12.8%.

Appointed in 2010 to grow and expand the digital businesses at the BBC's commercial arm, the executive is aiming high. 'There is more BBC content available that is marketed to more people in the world than ever before. You can watch more BBC content in America today than you have ever been able to watch.

'My ideal scenario is to have all the BBC shows ever available on BBC.com in every country in the world.'

YouTube is just one platform that could help him do that.

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