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'Responsibility comes first' - YouTube UK boss talks brand safety and representation on the platform

YouTube UK's managing director, Ben McOwen Wilson, has said that, as the platform grows, “responsibility” trumps brand safety and concerns over diversity and representation.

Speaking to The Drum at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, McOwen Wilson discussed recent allegations that YouTube had unfairly demonetised the channels of several LGBTQ+ YouTubers, the platform’s partnership activities with broadcasters and producers in the UK, and the possibility of increased regulation from the UK government.

Diversity and demonetisation

With diversity and discrimination in the UK’s media sector a hot topic in Edinburgh, McOwen Wilson, who is also regional director of YouTube EMEA, told The Drum that its status as an open platform meant YouTube was more representative of the country than the talent rosters of most UK broadcasters. “One of the things that is a truism of YouTube is that anyone can have a go and anyone can find success. And that means that we end up with this real representation where talent emerges all over and talent comes to us,” he said.

“Even beginning with the word ‘diversity’ just frames the issue in the wrong way. It makes it sounds like the cherry on the cake but, in fact, when we're talking about representation we want to make sure everybody in modern Britain has an equal chance of building their audience and finding their voice on our platform.

Addressing the allegations that YouTube had singled out LGBTQ+ channels for demonetisation, McOwen Wilson said: “From a creative point of view that wouldn't be something we would have wanted to do, but it's around brand safety. [Demonetisation] is not something that affects any particular groups in any particular way.”

Asked whether the platform prioritises brand safety over representation, he said: “I think responsibility comes first. That's different from brand safety. Responsibility is making sure we have a platform that is for audiences, for creators and for advertisers, is a place where there will be a very wide range of views expressed in a respectful and structured way. It’s about us making sure our hate and harassment policies are strong and clear and rigorously enforced.

“I don't mind us being held to account on that... there will be times when not everybody on our platform feels we've drawn the line on a particular issue in the right place. You have to explain how you've arrived at that conclusion and exactly where that line is drawn, and I think we've done that reasonably publicly over the last few months.”

Growth and guardrails

A recent Ofcom report claimed that YouTube was now the UK’s third most popular TV channel, only trailing BBC One and ITV in the time spent by viewers with each platform. McOwen Wilson said that, as YouTube takes its place among the UK’s established broadcasters, it expects to come under greater scrutiny from the UK government.

“I think it's entirely appropriate that governments have a view on what areas we ought to all have a policy on,” he stated. 

“The government’s online harms paper is beginning to set out a structure for how they think not only about YouTube but also about how they think about the internet more broadly. From my point of view, we welcome the opportunity to sit down with them and talk about what that system looks like.”

YouTube's chief executive officer Susan Wojcicki recently reaffirmed the company's commitment to hosting content that that is "outside the mainstream, controversial or even offensive," writing in a letter to the platform's community: "I believe preserving an open platform is more important than ever." 

Explaining YouTube’s strategy for policing the limits of that content, McOwen Wilson said that while Google’s tech can help to “scale” scrutiny of the platform’s vast library of content, the firm’s 10,000-strong corps of human reviewers was now considered essential. He said: “Only human review can really guarantee the context when something is nuanced and sophisticated.”

A veteran of YouTube and the TV industry – McOwen Wilson has been with the platform since 2011 and spent four years at ITV – he says those content guidelines “have always been an evolving game” and are likely to remain “a moving feast”.

Partnerships and production

With YouTube appearing as one of the festival’s principal sponsors and bringing a small army of creators and nascent TV stars (including Amelia Dimoldenberg and Asim Chaudhry, both of whom have crossed over from viral sensation to minted broadcast talent) to panel talks and events, McOwen Wilson pointed to its deepening relationships with the TV establishment.

“Broadcasters have moved on from the idea that a view on YouTube means a view that’s not on ITV1. Now we’re seeing production teams lean in.”

Pointing to the success of independent production houses such as Fremantle and Endemol on the platform – the former has managed to extend the lifetime of perennial properties like Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor by repackaging footage for online consumption – McOwen Wilson said: “That has allowed them to take that show and sell it around the world, making sure we are the most fantastic partner for those producers is critically important.”

Recent work alongside BT Sport and Sky Sports has led to those broadcasters using YouTube to reach sports audiences not plugged into their live offerings. Notably, Sky has been uploading its Premier League highlights packages to YouTube. Tomos Grace, YouTube’s head of sport for EMEA, told The Drum that the strategy could raise both audiences and revenue for the subscription broadcaster.

McOwen Wilson echoed his colleague's view, saying: “It adds value to the core business. The role that YouTube can play is different, whether it's a producer or an ad-funded broadcaster or a subscription-funded broadcaster, but we're not precious. We're very happy to work with them.”

YouTube’s own commissioning efforts – once limited, now ramping up under Luke Hyams, YouTube’s head of originals in Europe – have led it to embrace the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services directive, meaning it’s subject to the same scrutiny on hate speech as the BBC and other broadcasters. “Where we are playing the role of commissioner we are subject to exactly the same regulation that the BBC is subject to when it is playing the role of commissioner,” added McOwen Wilson.

Meanwhile, he notes, scrutiny of the main YouTube platform will sail on under its own power. He says: “On the platform overall, we don't have editorial control. We don't have commissioning control over that content in the same way that Sky is not responsible for BBC4's content simply because it carries it on its platform. It feels to me like an appropriate model for us to be held accountable.”

The Drum's Future of TV issue looks at the struggle between streamers, broadcasters and brands for eyeballs – from Netflix’s investment in immersive formats to National Geographic’s VR experiments, to why Reese’s and Michelob are making ASMR videos. Get your copy here.

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