Going down the tubes

YouTube is seeking to encourage more content from the MENA region.
YouTube's offices.
YouTube's offices.

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YouTube, now commonly accepted as the world’s most watched broadcaster, is seeking to encourage more content from the MENA region.

Of the many global new media companies to open regional offices in the UAE in recent times, perhaps the most significant for local content producers could prove to be Google, or more specifically – Google, which became the parent company of YouTube in a 2006 takeover.

Time and time again at industry events, panel discussions and conferences we hear that online video site is now the world’s leading broadcaster. Recent phenomena Gangnam Style alone clocked up 690M views by the 9th November 2012, a feat that few traditional broadcasters can equal, even when combining TV views, repeats and online views all at once.

Of course, the flip side of this is that much of YouTube’s content still consists of cats in amusing situations and children performing poor cover versions of their favourite pop stars’ efforts. It’s certainly true that the quality control associated with good quality traditional broadcasters is absent from the YouTube model.

It’s difficult to predict exactly what may ‘go viral,’ though the received wisdom is that viewer power should act as quality control in itself – if your content is rubbish, no one will watch it, goes the theory.

Admittedly, that doesn’t entirely explain how a video such as You Bit my Finger, formerly the most watched YouTube clip of all time, achieved around half a billion hits, was ranked number one in the Time Magazine 50 Greatest Viral Videos of all time list and earned English parents Howard and Shelley Davies-Carr a sum estimated at anywhere between US$100,000 and US$800,000 in the process.

It just goes to prove that there’s no accounting for taste, and the video remains the most viewed on the site that is not a professional music video.

For Robert Kyncl, Google’s global head of content partnerships and the man with overall responsibility for YouTube, all content is good content, and on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi he explained that his next task is to increase the amount of content created for the site in the MENA region.

Every day, 167 million videos are viewed in MENA, putting the region in the number two spot in the world behind the US and ahead of Brazil and Western Europe. Despite this, however, only one hour of YouTube video is uploaded in the MENA per minute.

Kyncl adds: “In the Middle East we are seeing a couple of trends. Five percent of our global revenue is coming from the Middle East, which is fantastic and is a very significant number. But only one percent of the content is local, so we have this great gulf between consumption and content, which we should try to fill.”

He is hoping he can start at the top with government organisations and large regional brands.

Dubai’s ruler HH Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched his own YouTube channel in February this year and Kyncl says he hopes this will trickle down to users: “We need to stimulate the user community to be more active and upload and create great channels that represent their interests.

We haven’t done enough of that,” he concedes, but says he is determined to raise the region’s profile and see more residents in the Arab world follow Psy’s example and become the next global YouTube sensation.

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“We have hired staff to focus on the local market and you will see more and more in that area. We are speaking to advertisers to localise our approach to advertising to make sure we not only build up great videos but also a great economic model.”

The UAE’s domain was localised in April this year with the launch of youtube.co.ae, making it the eighth in the region to localise alongside Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Yemen.

Kyncl claims the model is beginning to work, and points out that: “Filmmakers from the Middle East are winning competitions YouTube have put together. We see where talent is coming from and a lot of the talent is coming from MENA, which is really exciting to see.”

Some of the recent examples include Space Lab competition winner, Egyptian student Amr Mohamed, who won the grand prize for the seventeen-eighteen age category and got his experiment “Can you teach an old spider new tricks?” conducted on the International Space Station on 13 September this year.

Similarly, at the YouTube Your Film Festival, two filmmakers from the MENA region — one from Egypt and one from Lebanon — made it into the eventual list of ten finalists out of around 15,000 submissions.

One of the Arab markets growing most rapidly is Saudi Arabia. Of the 167 million MENA page views per day, 90 million are made in Saudi Arabia, making it the world’s highest number of YouTube views per internet user.

Kyncl also reports that the average internet user in Saudi watches three times as many videos per day compared to the average internet user in the US, and the kingdom also leads the region with the most playbacks per clip, followed by Egypt, Morocco and the UAE.

A decisive factor here is the growth of mobile phones in Saudi Arabia. While one in four YouTube clips are viewed on mobiles globally: the figure is even higher in Saudi: “The watermark example is Saudi Arabia where 50 percent of consumption is on mobiles, which is amazing,” says Kyncl.

“[The mobile] is already the first device in their consumption and we think that is how it will go in other parts of the world, so Saudi Arabia is actually showing us [the future model].”

Many would argue that the lack of cinemas and theatres and highly regulated TV and music market make Saudi the perfect market for expansion, but its conservative nature could also be an obstacle: “The content will come from those who care and create, so it may be conservative content as it is not up to us to judge,” says Kyncl.

“We are an open forum. What [content] will come is what will resonate with the viewers,” he adds.

It would be hard to touch on the topic of conservative cultures without at least considering the issue of censorship, particularly in light of the recent controversy over YouTube content which is deemed offensive to Islam, and one recent well-publicised video in particular which caused anger across the region.

Kyncl delegates to Google’s official policy on this issue: “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions.

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This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video — which is widely available on the web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube. However, we’ve restricted access to it in countries where it is illegal such as Saudi Arabia, India and Indonesia.”

Kyncl adds that balancing freedom of speech and the responsibility that comes with it “is not an easy task” as YouTube is a ground-breaking website and therefore a pioneer in this area.

“That responsibility is different in different places around the world and we contend with it. So what we are learning is how you contend with it when you operate around the globe and operate it within the guidelines of different places.

“You don’t want to give up all the benefits in the process. We react and figure out where the boundaries are and there is no blueprint. When you innovate and are the first it is the hardest job and when you push hard and you bring a lot of good, sometimes also it brings controversy and you learn to deal with it.

“Google’s ethos is to innovate. Therefore, we have to contend with issues that are contested and learn how to deal with that.”

While Kyncl is tussling with the ethics of content, YouTube is still not losing any of its allure and the number of people subscribing to the site has doubled year-on-year.

At the same time, partner revenue is doubling each year and has done so for the last four years in a row. With the TV sector becoming more and more fragmented, thousands of YouTube channels are making six figures annually.

Figures show the top 20 funded channels are currently averaging over a million views a week and more than 25 funded channels have more than 100,000 subscribers, a milestone only two percent of YouTube channels ever reach.

Some of the largest advertisers on the site include Toyota, Unilever, American Express, AT&T, Gillette and GM. “We’re now making nearly as much money per viewership hour showing your content in the US as cable networks make showing their content on TV — without sending anyone a cable bill,” a report from Google claims.

In addition to these impressive figures, Kyncl believes YouTube’s social impact will be its real legacy: “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I think YouTube is shattering the barriers and it is levelling the playing field.

One of the reasons US and American culture has been distributed so well all around the world over the last 20 or 30 years is because it benefitted greatly from the closed system of media. In a closed system those with the biggest scale win.

“So, it was the American companies who could build up the largest distribution of any kind and therefore could build up the largest movie production facilities and make the biggest movies and TV shows and export them very effectively all around the world as they had the most efficient system and benefitted from the scale.

YouTube is making it far more democratic. It allows anyone from around the world to succeed, which means those with less scale can compete with those that have scale.”

He concludes: “[Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’] would not have been possible in the past - that he would make it to a global scale. The same can happen in news, the same can happen in sport, the same can happen in entertainment and the same can happen in politics. People from different cultures, backgrounds, religions and beliefs are all brought to live in the same venue.”

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