YouTube more representative of Britain than television, says UK boss

YouTube’s UK boss has said his platform is more representative of modern Britain than broadcasters such as the BBC, saying that television channels are falling behind because they do not provide material that speaks directly to all parts of the country.

The Google-owned video service is on the cusp of overtaking the BBC as the dominant media source for 16- to 34-year-olds in the UK, with the average adult internet user watching 46 minutes of YouTube per day.

Its growing dominance of the UK media market has focused government attention on the site’s impact on traditional broadcast outlets and whether it should have similar public service obligations to traditional television channels.

Ben McOwen Wilson said a key part of his platform’s success was that it offered audiences material from “different races, genders and regional diversity that just isn’t available in traditional media”.

He highlighted the beauty presenter Patricia Bright, along with Folkestone PE teacher Matt Morsia, who quit his job to become a full-time YouTuber and “now earns way more than you or I will ever earn. I don’t know that traditional media was ever looking to cast someone from Folkestone in fitness videos.”

McOwen Wilson argued that while traditional British TV channels were still essentially elitist and London-centric in their outlook, his site was creating global stars. These include Colin Furze, a science presenter from Lincolnshire, who gets a cut of the site’s advertising revenue. Instead, YouTube is working with the BBC to help the broadcaster increase its on-screen and off-screen diversity in terms of race, geographic and economic background.

“It is just not accurate to depict us as something that is only taking from the British creative industries,” says McOwen Wilson. “Consumers get to view content that they can’t find anywhere else.

“What we create, which the public service broadcasters do not, is an export opportunity.” He added that 84% of the views on UK-uploaded content came from outside the UK. “Their success is global. It’s not limited to these shores.”

Unlike the UK’s public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 – YouTube is not legally required to invest in original news content. YouTube has also spent years grappling with the radicalising effects of its algorithm and reputation as a home for conspiracies and extremist material.

Last week, the new BBC director general, Tim Davie, told an Ofcom panel on the future of TV that he admired YouTube. But he said its approach of serving specific niches with user-created created content would not work for the BBC: “That is different to a public service brief curated in a way that’s meant to be universal, with all its trauma and angst.”

One regular criticism of YouTube from the UK’s broadcasters is its appropriateness for young children. The BBC regularly emphasises the thought and effort that goes into its children’s programming. This includes ensuring it is psychologically appropriate for age groups. YouTube’s children’s programming is created by third parties.

McOwen Wilson instead said the site was filling a gap for parents after many UK channels reduced their investment in original British children’s programming.

“I care about British television,” he said. “The reality is that at a time when volume of hours was going down, platforms such as YouTube and Netflix and others were bringing content forward. He acceptied the programmes may not be created to the same standards as that found on CBeebies.

“We are not the commissioners of that content. We are not sat there ensuring the quality of that content compared with the BBC or others. It’s not us who’s making the commissioning decision. Our role is about making sure the platform is safe for parents and children.”

He said that while the site removed tens of millions of videos a year for breaching its rules, its approach to unpalatable content that did not break rules was to reduce its audience by tweaking the site’s recommendation algorithm, rather than banning them altogether.

“We recognise that in the UK we have a long tradition of liberal speech. There is that sense that we should not be overreaching in terms of closing people down because of how we would like to shape their views on the platform.

“We will absolutely remove content that is in breach of any of our policies on hate speech. But also we have a view that while we may respect free speech in terms of allowing content to be uploaded on to the platform, we will reduce that flow of viewership. Access to the YouTube algorithm is a privilege.”

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