When Kelly Merryman arrived at YouTube six years ago, the dust had just cleared on a contentious $1 billion lawsuit with Viacom that had dragged on for years.
The New York cable television giant complained that Google’s YouTube had knowingly allowed its users to post Viacom videos, including clips from South Park and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, on its site without permission.
The case was settled in 2014 but highlighted the fraught relations YouTube had with media companies that viewed the vast video sharing site as a competitor that profited off unauthorized clips of their popular shows.
"There was more trust that needed to be built," said Merryman, YouTube's vice president of content partnerships.
Since then, Merryman has worked tirelessly to change Hollywood's perception of YouTube from pariah to partner. She's persuaded media companies to use the vast reach of YouTube to promote their shows and films. The premium content also benefits YouTube, which takes in revenue from ads placed on the videos and shares that money with partners.
The growing ties, deemed unfathomable 15 years ago, have strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as studios have increasingly relied on YouTube to lure younger audiences to new streaming platforms.
Studios including NBCUniversal, owned by Comcast, used YouTube as one of the digital platforms for releasing more than 10 paid video-on-demand titles in 2020, including Trolls World Tour. The Trolls movie reportedly brought in $95 million during its first three weeks in online sales across a variety of platforms.
"We've gone from the platform that made them no money and they were suing to the platform that is paying out massive amounts of money and lots of usage for them," said Robert Kyncl, YouTube's chief business officer. "Kelly is right in the center of all of this."
Merryman, 44, a former Netflix executive, oversees more than 300 people in the United States, Canada and Latin America, including staffers who work with hundreds of content partners.
Part of her role is to serve as a bridge between media partners and other aspects of YouTube. Her team works with product, engineering, operations and marketing colleagues at YouTube.
"What I found at YouTube as well as my time at Netflix is nothing is a substitute for sitting with your partners and understanding their concerns, their ideas, the areas in which you can be helpful to them," Merryman said.
Merryman, who served in a variety of executive roles before landing her current job, has a background in finance. Growing up in Houston, she loved theater, performing as a dancer in Singin’ in the Rain in high school. But Merryman says she found her calling on the business side of entertainment. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a finance degree and worked as a consultant at Bain & Co.
"I sort of very quickly recognized that I didn't want to be the person just creating the slides that helped someone else change their organization, " Merryman said. "I wanted to be the change."
She later went to Harvard Business School for her MBA and became an executive director of digital services and distribution at Sony in 2004. Three years later, she became vice president of content acquisition at Netflix.
At Netflix, she developed a knack for translating what the streamer was doing in a way that traditional media companies would understand. A decade ago, when Netflix was trying to get more TV shows on its platform, Merryman was instrumental in brokering a deal with Warner Bros., said Kyncl, who worked with her at Netflix.
Merryman also saw an opportunity for Netflix to expand globally.
Kyncl recruited her for her current job in late 2014. ”I knew that I needed somebody like that who’s strategic and who’s an operator to come into our fast-growing business,” he said.
One of Merryman's first tasks was to deepen YouTube's relationship with the biggest and most powerful studio, the Walt Disney Co.
Like many studios, Disney was concerned about how YouTube managed videos that included pirated content. Merryman addressed those concerns by touting Google’s technology, including ContentID, that flags unauthorized content for media partners and allows them to choose whether to take those videos down or profit from ads placed on them. Companies can sometimes benefit from those unauthorized videos: For example, when fans post sing-along videos of Frozen’s “Let It Go,” it increases the value of the brand, she said.
Partnerships with Disney and other media companies have helped boost YouTube's profile and generate more money for the company.
YouTube made $15 billion in ad revenue in 2019, up 36% from 2018, Google parent Alphabet has reported. Its partners have also been crucial to YouTube expanding its live TV offering, YouTube TV, which has more than three million subscribers and more than 85 networks, including ABC, FOX and CNN.
YouTube has a massive global audience, with more than one billion hours of video watched on its platform each day. When the pandemic hit, YouTube’s viewership skyrocketed, and it became a haven for media companies looking to expand and connect with their audiences as productions shut down or scaled back.
Late-night hosts pivoted to filming themselves at home, sharing interviews on YouTube. YouTube organized two interviews with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah and infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, driving more than 18 million views.
YouTube has also been a way for media companies to market their streaming services to younger audiences, many of whom have quit or never signed up for a cable TV service. A person watching a clip of a show on YouTube is 33% more likely to watch the program on TV, according to Nielsen.
NBCUniversal’s streaming platform, Peacock, has promoted itself on YouTube. One of the studio’s popular YouTube channels is The Office, which became available on Peacock on Jan. 1.
"Figuring out how we leverage those audiences that are on the platform to drive awareness and conversions into Peacock — they've been a great partner," said Maggie Suniewick, president of NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises.