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YouTube exec takes it from Hollywood pariah to partner

by Tribune News Service | January 10, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.

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 has 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 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 brought in $95 million during its first three weeks in online sales across a variety of platforms, according to a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to comment.

"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."

The 44-year-old former Netflix executive oversees a team of more than 300 people in the United States, Canada and Latin America, including employees who work with hundreds of content partners. She lives in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and until the pandemic struck, worked out of the historic Spruce Goose hangar in Playa Vista, where Google has established an expanding presence in Southern California.

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 wasn't a triple threat and 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 Columbia Pictures/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 invaluable opportunity for Netflix to expand globally.

When she told her boss, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, that she planned to focus on international growth full time, he supported the idea but warned her that she would lose her job if it didn't work out, Merryman recalled. Her bet paid off.

"Kelly was so perfect for Netflix in those early days," Sarandos, who last year also became Netflix's co-chief executive, said in a statement. "She is smart, curious and a hard working problem solver, and in those days it was all new and full of problems."

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," Kyncl 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 3 million subscribers and more than 85 networks, including ABC, Fox and CNN.

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