SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 20: Xolo Mariduena from Youtube's Cobra Kai attends the Pizza Hut Lounge at 2018 Comic-Con International: San Diego at Andaz San Diego on July 20, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Pizza Hut)
Xolo Maridueña from Youtube's 'Cobra Kai' series © Getty

YouTube will make its original programming, including the cult hit show Cobra Kai, free to watch on its website, stepping back from a war for streaming subscribers that is about to get much tougher with the launch of services from Apple and Disney.

The Google-owned video platform is switching tactics and doubling down on an ad-supported model, rather than chasing Netflix and other rivals. Ads brought in $15bn in revenue for YouTube last year, according to analyst estimates.

All future original shows will have windows of being free to watch with ads, YouTube said on Thursday. 

Cobra Kai, a series based on The Karate Kid films, has become YouTube’s most successful original series and a cult favourite, drawing thousands of fans at the Comic Con convention this summer. The full first season was moved in front of YouTube’s paywall on Thursday and season two, which debuts in September, will roll out a new episode weekly — also for free.

Cobra Kai was one of the projects spearheaded by Susanne Daniels, the television veteran YouTube hired in 2015 to overhaul its strategy. Ms Daniels, who had overseen popular shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer as president of The WB channel, began ordering big budget scripted series for YouTube.

The goal was to build the subscription service YouTube Premium, which costs $12 a month. The company also constructed 10,000 square foot sound stages in Los Angeles, with an Art Deco-style conveying a nostalgia for classic Hollywood: studios lined with Howard Hughes posters. 

However, making original television has proved to be both expensive and difficult, as competition for content has heated up. Disney, Apple and WarnerMedia flagged their intention to take on Netflix and poured billions of dollars into new shows to help drum up excitement for their streaming services

As early as the spring of 2018, top brass at YouTube began to question whether a subscription-based model was the best move for a video site that had attracted billions of users with cat videos, baking and make-up tutorials, and influencers such as PewDiePie.

When Cobra Kai was last year featured on the cover of Adweek, the trade magazine, it was a “wake up moment”, according to people close to the decision. “We have this show that does not have ads, and it’s on the cover of Adweek?”

Ms Daniels said on Thursday that the company was “now developing new series and specials centred on fan-favourite areas like music, personalities and life-long learning”. 

While upcoming original TV shows will be free to watch, YouTube’s existing library will stay behind a paywall because of contracts the video platform had already struck with producers.

YouTube does not report subscriber numbers, but the company claims subscriptions to its Premium service grew 60 per cent from March 2018 to March 2019. Premium will continue to offer ad-free access to YouTube’s content, and also includes YouTube Music, a streaming service comparable to Spotify. 

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