Series ‘Step Up: High Water’ & ‘Wayne’, Pilot ‘Dark Cargo’ Seek New Homes As YouTube Steps Up Scripted Pullback


EXCLUSIVE: YouTube’s scale-back on original scripted programming continues. I have learned that the online video platform is not proceeding with new seasons of its drama series Step Up: High Water and comedy Wayne, and is not going forward with drama pilot Dark Cargo and comedy pilot It’s a Man’s World.

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The development comes on the heels of YouTube in March canceling the sci-fi drama series Origin and the comedy Overthinking with Kat & June, and its new drama series On Becoming a God In Central Florida starring Kirsten Dunst being put in turnaround and landing at Showtime in June. The pullback is part of a programming strategy shift for YouTube as it is moving from an SVOD (subscription supported video on demand) to an AVOD (ad-supported video on demand) model with a focus on music, learning and personalities fare.

I hear three of the four YouTube Premium projects that will not continue on the platform — Step Up: High Water from Lionsgate TV, Wayne from Endeavor Content, and Dark Cargo from Entertainment One — are actively looking for new homes.

For Step Up, which has aired two seasons to date, Lionsgate-owned Starz is considered a likely option. The offshoot from Lionsgate’s popular Step Up movie franchise was the first big scripted series buy at YouTube for Global Content head Susanne Daniels. It is one of YouTube’s most popular shows, with the official first episode watched more than 43 million times (its uncensored version has garnered another 21+ million views). Additionally, the dance-themed series is doing particularly well among Latinx and African American viewers, which are part of Starz’s core subscriber base.

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Wayne launched in January to strong reviews and has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its pilot has been viewed more than 27 million times. Endeavor Content has been in talks with multiple networks, I hear.

Meanwhile, I hear eOne is currently holding screenings of the Dark Cargo pilot for potential buyers. The big-scope, bid-budget pilot stars Chris Messina and RJ Cyler. There had been significant interest in the project when it was first shopped by eOne, with YouTube landing the a high-octane, cliffhanger-driven neo-noir thriller in a competitive situation.

As Deadline reported last November, Google-owned YouTube started recalibrating its original programming strategy last fall in preparation of moving all YouTube Originals in front of the paywall to be ad-supported, creating a single Originals slate for both AVOD and SVOD. At that time, YouTube quietly stopped taking new scripted pitches while keeping all existing scripted projects in the pipeline.

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That pipeline is now starting to run dry. Following the string of cancellations and passes over the last few months, there are only three remaining scripted series that originated on YouTube Premium and will now transition to AVOD with their upcoming seasons. Topping the list is the hugely popular flagship Cobra Kai, which is headed into its third season and is expected to be a cornerstone of YouTube’s new AVOD platform, as well as the upcoming second seasons of drama Impulse and comedy Liza On Demand, the latter headlined by YouTube star Liza Koshy.

Given YouTube’s direction away from scripted, the fate of Impulse beyond Season 2 is highly uncertain. The future of Liza On Demand is more promising as Koshy is a signature YouTube talent, and the platform recently ordered two additional episodes for the show’s upcoming second season. YouTube is expected to assess the two series’ AVOD performance before making final renewal decisions.

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Being built around a popular YourTube personally, Liza On Demand falls into one the three development filters the video hub announced at its May NewFront as a way to align its originals closer to what appeals to its broad audience of 2 billion users. They include music, learning and personalities/familiar IP. At the time, YouTube brass maintained that scripted would remain an active component of its development and programming plans, joining unscripted, interactive and live entertainment events.

Kirsten Dunst, ‘On Becoming A God In Central Florida’ Patti Perret/Showtime

While a number of scripted projects have become casualties of YouTube’s programming strategy shift, the company’s team has been supportive of them, allowing their producers to find new homes. That includes On Becoming a God In Central Florida going to Showtime after studio Sony TV could not reach a deal to change its distribution model from SVOD to AVOD.

Tech companies have had a complicated relationship with original scripted programming and SVOD content. Amazon was the first digital company with a core business not related to entertainment to jump in and challenge Netflix and Hulu, though it has not been a smooth ride, with boss Jeff Bezos ordering a major reset in 2017 aiming at global genre hits. Apple mulled a foray into the arena for years before finally committing two years ago. Snapchat announced and canceled plans for original scripted ramp-ups multiple times. Going all-in on premium scripted content is a huge financial investment even for tech juggernauts.

For YouTube, there also has been the issue of brand identity. The Web portal was conceived as and remains known as a hub for ad-supported user-generated content available to everyone around the world for free. Adding curated, professionally produced high-end scripted series to paying customers via YouTube Red (later renamed YouTube Premium) in selected countries where the SVOD service is available had been changing the perception of YouTube, and the Google brass were said to not be convinced it is the way to go.

YouTube is now reverting to its original model of video content accessible by anyone and monetized via ads, something Google is a leader in. For those who prefer offline, ad-free experiences, YouTube Premium will remain an SVOD option. The hybrid model is employed by Hulu, CBS All Access and NBCUniversal’s upcoming streamer.

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