YouTube was always about video that was wider than it was tall, the kind you watch in movie theaters and on wide-screen TVs. So once apps like Snapchat and Periscope proved that vertical video could rival or even usurp horizontal formats, YouTube suddenly found itself behind. Its horizontal player created huge dead zones on either margin of vertical videos and shrunk the image to fit the available height.
Then, at a meeting earlier this year where someone was complaining about the problem, an engineer piped up. "'Oh yeah, that's horrible,'" the engineer said, recalled Matt Glotzbach, VP-product management, YouTube. "'I fixed that. I've implemented full-screen support for vertical video. Here, turn on this experiment and you can test it.' We were like, 'That's great! We should launch that!'" YouTube adopted full-screen vertical playback in July.
Meet a crucial new breed of entertainment programmer: YouTube engineers.
Products, not a portal
YouTube has always denied ambitions to become a programmer akin to CBS or Netflix, and it remains an atypical sort today. It is not, for example, arranging a marquee section on its home page to push a flagship series the way a broadcast network flogs its new lineup. But under CEO Susan Wojcicki, its engineers are steadily rolling out products, updating existing platforms and making it easier to connect videos with audiences -- and the advertisers that follow.
Amid the rise of video competitors including Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Vessel and Twitch, YouTube engineers have added support not just for vertical but also 360-degree video, created apps dedicated to popular categories like gaming and overhauled the company's primary mobile app to make it easier for people to find videos they want to watch. To the potential chagrin of advertisers, they are also developing an ad-free service for people who would rather pay than contend with pre-roll and overlays.
"That whole idea -- we're going to reallocate our product resources to really getting better at content discovery -- that to me is an example of saying, 'Hey, we need to be better programmers,'" said Chad Gutstein, CEO of digital video network Machinima.
YouTube is pursuing programming in the classical sense to some degree, planning to debut several feature films from DreamWorks Animation's AwesomenessTV and producing original series with YouTube stars such as the Smosh Brothers, who will star in a comedy that has them working at a theme restaurant.
But in a telling moment during an interview at YouTube headquarters, when Ms. Wojcicki was asked whether YouTube will use traditional programming tactics to promote its original content, she said: "That's where Cristos' team comes in." She was talking about Cristos Goodrow, YouTube's director of engineering.
Mr. Goodrow and the search-and-recommendations team he oversees are tasked with tackling a monumental challenge. With 300 hours' worth of videos uploaded to YouTube every minute, people face a paradox of choice. "This is the biggest problem everybody seems to have on YouTube: We have a billion videos, and you can't figure out what to watch," Mr. Goodrow said.
It has become one of YouTube's biggest vulnerabilities. Instead of digging around YouTube to find something to watch, people can pull up their Facebook feed and let their friends make the choice. Or they can opt for more category-specific video services like Netflix and Hulu for TV-style programming; Vessel for early access to some of the top YouTube stars; or Amazon's Twitch for gaming videos, one of YouTube's most popular categories.