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How YouTube's War With Netflix Led to a 'Step Up' Series

step up high water youtube red
YouTube Red

Fans of the five Step Up films will have to... step up (sorry) to YouTube Red to see the franchise's latest entry, the TV series Step Up: High Water. To viewers who already subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, CBS All Access, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Starz, or any of the other seemingly infinite streaming offerings, one more subscription could be a tough sell. The smaller fish in the streaming pond are up against great white sharks in Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, all of which have the money and subscriber base to churn out original content and see what sticks. In response, the lesser-used services have turned to sure-thing properties to drive subscriptions: CBS All Access hauled in Trekkies with the latest Star Trek installation, and Showtime pulled in Twin Peaks fans with a decades-later continuation of the hit series.

Step Up might not strike you initially as having the same kind of fan base as either of those shows, but there's a reason five sequels exist, and YouTube is betting they'll open their wallets for a series. After Step Up, YouTube will release the Karate Kid series Cobra Kai, starring William Zabka and Ralph Macchio. Thrillist spoke with Susanne Daniels, YouTube's Global Head of Original Content, about how the platform landed on these two shows, and how YouTube's original series can compete for eyeballs (and dollars) in a crowded digital streaming landscape.

A franchise name helps, but it's no guarantee. A quick glance at the recent slate of shows based on movies -- like Rush Hour, Limitless, Minority Report, The Firm, Ferris Bueller, and beyond -- reveals a graveyard of failed franchise crossovers. YouTube has an advantage, however, for predicting the success of a movie spinoff, and it already has another series in the works.

"Both for Step Up and Cobra Kai, we looked into audiences watching the movies on Google Play and YouTube," Daniels said. "We looked into audiences watching clips, searching, how often they searched for the terms, for the titles. We know that both are meaningful titles to a vast number of people who enjoy YouTube."

As with all creative choices in the digital era, Big Data will have its say.

step up high water youtube red
YouTube Red

How YouTube chooses the right movie to turn into a series

It's not just about finding the highly searched film titles, but also the ones YouTube can feasibly develop into series, Daniels said, and that means mining its vast catalog of user-generated clips. Dance videos, in particular, have proven highly shareable on the platform, so a show that has two or three sick dance highlights each episode could virtually sell itself.

"Dance is a hugely popular genre on YouTube, so tapping into that genre was part of the goal of Step Up, and tapping into the Step Up fans and Step Up audiences," Daniels said. "Shareability of dance clips, shareability of any clips -- anything that can go viral and the algorithm will support in that way -- is part of what we aim for." Talk of pleasing algorithms is nothing new for search- and discovery-based platforms, all of which rely on search algorithms to engage users and keep them watching more, longer. Netflix even serves up unique images based on users' tastes, all in an effort to have subscribers spend more time on Netflix. 

Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan-Tatum, stars of the original movie, are executive producers of Step Up: High Water, though no stars of the films appear in the first season. However, High Water is set in Atlanta, which means Moose could still be dancing his heart out in New York or Las Vegas.

"I like that idea," Daniels said. "I'd like to see Step Up evolve in Season 2 and maybe touch upon some aspects of the various movies, all of which I enjoyed."

Why make TV-length shows on a service known for short form?

At half an hour per episode for Cobra Kai and a full hour for Step Up, people who use YouTube to watch cat videos might get turned off by what must seem like an eternity. According to Daniels, though, YouTube Red audiences crave longer formats: When the service launched Rhett and Link's Buddy System at 10 minutes per episode, fans still wanted more.

"The feedback was if audiences are going to pay, they want to feel like they're getting premium content," Daniels said. "Once you get over the hump and you're paying on a monthly subscription service, you want more. You want more bang for your buck. Season 2 of Rhett and Link's Buddy System is a more traditional 20-minute format."

Look for the content war to extend to devices

In theory, the idea of targeting specific groups of fans sounds like a smart strategy, but a limiting factor may soon come into play. With so many shows and so many different devices and services on which to watch them, companies with a vested interest the service may be starting to play hardball. Google has removed the YouTube app from Amazon devices, so Fire viewers will have to use another device to see Step Up and Cobra Kai.

When I asked Daniels if this kind of gatekeeping was a sign of how the big players would behave in the future, she played coy. "I don't know who's playing hardball with whom," she said. "That's a tech question."

She did, however, acknowledge that what everyone else already knows: The television landscape is evolving rapidly in response to the streaming revolution. "I think you'll see it change," Daniels said, in reference to the fact that some shows (like Star Trek: Discovery) are only available on little-used services. "Maybe right now it's more limited, but in time there will be an even playing field."

When Google, Amazon, Apple, and Netflix are involved, though, that even playing field could wind up being more like a heavyweight fight, and no one -- least of all the consumers -- knows what will happen. 

Step Up: High Water premieres on YouTube Red on January 31. Cobra Kai sweeps the leg later this year.

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Fred Topel has been an entertainment journalist since 1999. He is a member of the Television Critics Association and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. Follow him @FranchiseFred.