YouTube Moves Cobra Kai in Front of Paywall Today, Kicking Off Original Content Strategy Shift

All new series released after Sept. 24 will be available to watch for free

YouTube's original series Cobra Kai
Season 1 of Cobra Kai is available for free until Sept. 12. YouTube Premium

YouTube is moving the first season of its original television series Cobra Kai in front of its paywall today, marking the start of the service’s strategy shift to making all of the platform’s original programming free and ad supported instead of being restricted to YouTube Premium subscribers.

The first season of Cobra Kai, a series based on the Karate Kid film franchise, will today become available for all YouTube viewers to watch for free, with ads. It will remain free until Sept. 12, one day after Season 2 is available to stream for free. One Season 2 episode will be rolled out for free each week.

The entire show—which has become YouTube’s signature original series—had previously been behind a paywall; only the first two episodes of Season 1 and the first episode of Season 2 were available as a sample before users had to pay to watch the rest of each season.

All YouTube original series and specials released after Sept. 24 will be available to watch free with advertising for a certain window of time, which will vary depending on the individual programs, YouTube said.

Cobra Kai serves as a cornerstone of YouTube Premium, the company’s $11.99-a-month subscription service that gives viewers ad-free YouTube and access to the platform’s original programming. YouTube had initially planned on keeping some of its originals entirely behind the paywall of YouTube Premium (formerly known as YouTube Red). But after the program’s stars appeared on the cover of Adweek, the company changed tactics and said it would instead make all of its original series and specials available free and ad supported for limited windows after their debuts.

In an interview with Adweek, Angela Courtin, YouTube’s global head of YouTube TV and YouTube Originals marketing, said that moving Cobra Kai and subsequent original programming in front of the paywall will substantially increase viewership for YouTube Originals and open up more marketing opportunities for YouTube’s advertisers.

“While the entertainment community is building paywalls, we want to give people the option to either pay with their wallets or with their attention,” Courtin said.

The company also announced a new lineup of programming, including The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, a 90-minute documentary about the musician slated to premiere on Oct. 8, along with five original programs targeted toward European viewers.

That regional lineup approach is an attempt to hone the “tremendous opportunity to develop more region-specific content,” YouTube chief business officer Robert Kyncl wrote in a statement.

Marketing for Cobra Kai and upcoming originals will take shape across YouTube and Google platforms and will also appear outside of the Google ecosystem in both traditional and nontraditional channels, depending on the program and its target audience. YouTube’s AVOD business will be “probably our greatest marketing tool” to driving people to its SVOD offering, Courtin said.

While subscribers to YouTube Premium get additional benefits, like having the option to binge-watch original programming, getting access to bonus footage and having an ad-free viewing experience, the goal is not to drive all viewers to sign up for a paid subscription. Instead, marketing YouTube Premium will serve as “a reminder and invitation to make that choice along your content-consumption journey,” Courtin said.

With ongoing controversies surrounding its content-recommendation system and the platform it gives to fringe provocateurs, YouTube has had a rough year. The company’s foray into original programming has served as something of a safe haven by offering advertisers premium vetted programming that has the same targeting capabilities as the rest of YouTube’s freewheeling platform.

On the content-development side of things, YouTube Originals is bolstered by the company’s ability to tap into viewership habits and interests of its more than 2 billion users. Courtin said that programming around music, learning and YouTube creators serve as cornerstones of the original-content build-out.

“YouTube is the largest niche community globally,” Courtin said. “It’s huge in terms of scale, but there are all these beautiful microcommunities that exist.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.