Susanne Daniels Masters a New Medium
While some were surprised to see Susanne Daniels, a career television executive, make the move to YouTube in 2015, the shift actually makes a ton of sense. Throughout her career, which includes tenures as president of The WB and president of programming at MTV, Daniels has shown an innate knack for understanding the whims and tastes of youth culture. And while YouTube is a distinct platform, her role there as global head of original content is, boiled down, all about figuring out what young people want to consume.
“The essence of what I did for broadcast and cable networks in terms of developing new shows that resonated with an audience,” says Daniels, “is very much at the core of what we’re trying to do at YouTube too.”
Throughout her career, Daniels has built a reputation as a savvy tastemaker and deeply respected partner. Industry icon Van Toffler, who calls Daniels a “colleague and confidante,” notes how she is much more than a mere colleague for those Daniels conducts business with. “Susanne is a wonderful person first,” says Toffler, founder of digital video outfit Gunpowder & Sky, “and a brilliant creative executive second.”
After graduating from Harvard, Daniels had a rapid rise to the top tier of television. Her first TV post, handling reality, variety and specials at ABC, began in 1990. She headed up comedy development at Fox two years later, and in 1994 began a nine-year run as president of the former broadcast network The WB. There, she helped bring to life shows that have lived on, in viewers’ hearts and on the streaming services, well after the network did, including Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek.
The president position at Lifetime followed, before Toffler successfully “hunted her down,” he says, to be programming chief at MTV in late 2012. Daniels’ and Toffler’s meeting to discuss the job terms got off on the wrong foot, with Daniels and Toffler going to different Manhattan restaurants for the tête–à–tête. Eventually, they connected.
Toffler noted at the time how Daniels had “thankfully kept in perfect touch with her juvenile side”—key to programming an iconoclastic youth focused network. At MTV, she helped launch brand-defining shows such as Scream, Finding Carter and Faking It, and with her savvy marketing skills took existing shows like Real World and Ridiculousness to the next level.
By mid-2015, with Toffler departing after 28 years at MTV, Daniels made her move too. Top priority for her at You-Tube is bolstering the offerings, and in turn increasing viewership, for subscription service YouTube Red. Including its original slate, Red will launch close to 50 new projects this year—around double what it introduced in 2016—involving both endemic stars of the video platform and mainstream talent too.
That includes another TV veteran giving YouTube a try. Dan Harmon, creator of NBC comedy Community and Adult Swim comedy Rick and Morty, has a series coming up about a struggling eSports team.
Daniels is also pumped about Mind Field, from YouTube star Michael Stevens, and anything related to dance, such as a partnership with Lionsgate for Step Up. Daniels too bought a pilot from Bourne Identity filmmaker Doug Liman, a teleportation thriller called Impulse.
YouTube’s sweet spot is users aged 14-34, and its competition is “anyone targeting teens and millennials,” she said. Living in Los Angeles with her husband, the prolific producer Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation), Daniels has their four children to help curate the untold hours of videos assembled on YouTube.
Programming insiders say Daniels has taken a measured approach to the new frontiers of digital video-on-demand. Toffler, for one, notes the irony of someone he describes as “a bit of a Luddite” ending up at the world’s top tech firm in YouTube parent Google. Daniels was notorious for accidentally hanging up on video conference participants during her time at MTV, enough so that Stephen Friedman, former president, lovingly called her out in a memo announcing Daniels’ departure. “I will personally miss her terrific sense of humor, her warmth and candor, and those wonderful occasions when she accidentally hangs up on a 40-person VC (sorry, Susanne–I had to),” he wrote.
Adds Toffler: “Let’s just say Susanne doesn’t come to technology easily. But she’s learning.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.