Can Seeso’s Cult Comedy Approach Break Into Streaming?

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How do you launch a new streaming service in 2015? Generalists like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon’s Prime Video, with their broad (though not deep) selections of shows and movies, are already well established, and there’s only so many à la carte services consumers are willing to pay for before all those $10-a-month bills start to make cable look like a better deal. More outlets are popping up by the day, but as Yahoo! and Snapchat have learned, breaking into the streaming game, particularly with original programming, isn’t a failsafe strategy for growth.

With Seeso, a new site that enters a monthlong free Beta period tomorrow, NBCUniversal — specifically, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises — offers its answer. Rather than offer as wide a selection as possible, the kind that presents itself as a reasonable alternative to watching TV or renting movies the old-fashioned way, Seeso doubles down on a specific niche. It’s the HBO Now approach, taken to an even further extreme. Because instead of simply “highbrow prestige television, plus a smattering of random movies,” Seeso’s oeuvre is a single genre: comedy.

It’s a smart move, given that comedy fans are both predisposed towards obsessive fandom and more numerous than ever. Seeso also offers a lower price for its narrower selection; starting in January, it’ll go for $3.99 a month, compared to Amazon’s $8.25 (including all the other perks of Prime membership), Netflix’s $9.99, and HBO Now’s $14.99. At that price point, NBCUniversal’s not aiming for a one-stop shop, but rather a bonus on top of a more comprehensive service like, say, Hulu — of which parent company Comcast also happens to be a partial owner.

Like its predecessors, Seeso combines an archive of older material — some, though not all, from NBCUniversal itself — with a slate of original series, three of which will go live with the rest of the site tomorrow. The classics, according to Seeso’s initial press release, will include:

…an exclusive slew of Monty Python, including the first batch of newly minted HD editions of “The Flying Circus” and Python classics “The Meaning of Life,” “Holy Grail,” and “Life of Brian.” Seeso’s Beta sampling also includes fan favorites like “30 Rock,” “Fawlty Towers,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Saved By the Bell,” “The IT Crowd,” “The Mighty Boosh,” both the US and UK versions of “The Office, ” and every season of “The Kids in the Hall,” remastered into HD. Additionally, next day, full length episodes of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and 40 plus years of “Saturday Night Live” will be available during the Beta preview.

Several of those shows, dedicated binge-watchers — which is to say, most people — will note, are already available on major services like Netflix (The IT Crowd, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec), Hulu (next-day episodes of Late Night and The Tonight Show), and even Yahoo (the SNL archives). Since a streaming service cannot live on British cult hits alone, Seeso’s presumably counting on its original series to bring in the subscriber base.

There are a whopping 21 in the works, including “a combination of standup and sketch show” from Dan Harmon, as good a creator to have on board if you’re aiming for a small-but-dedicated following as any. Only three, however, will be available immediately upon the Beta launch — and unfortunately, they’re something of a mixed bag.

  • The UCB Show: Amy Poehler is by far the biggest name attached to Seeso, though she’s mostly involved in her capacity as one of the co-founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade, now legendary as a comedy talent farm. That’s not a bad thing, though, as The UCB Show takes a tried-and-true approach for efficient, bang-for-your-buck comedy programming — cheaply filming a live performance and broadcasting it to a national audience — to sketch rather than stand-up. (See: The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail on Comedy Central, any number of shows during the first comedy boom in the ’80s, Seeso’s own forthcoming stand-up show The Guest List.) The performances may be hit or miss, but so are shows at the actual UCB, and there’s something democratic about making comedy’s preeminent training ground, and the surprise appearances by heavy-hitters that come with it, available to people outside New York and LA.
  • The Cyanide & Happiness Show: Calling this a “Seeso original” is a bit of a misnomer; the creators of the hit webcomic actually funded an independent web series via Kickstarter earlier this year, then pulled it from the Internet in August before announcing its exclusive availability via Seeso at New York Comic Con. It’s… exactly what you would expect from an animated version of Cyanide & Happiness: vaguely clever, vaguely amusing bits that rarely last longer than a couple minutes, strung together into 13-minute episodes in the cartoon equivalent of a sketch show. It’s not bad, but it won’t make you laugh out loud, either — much like most webcomics.
  • Sammy J & Randy in Ricketts Lane: Again, not exactly a Seeso original, though the only one of these three that qualifies as a full-length scripted series. A musical comedy from popular, Bo Burnham-esque Australian performer Sammy J, the six-part season already aired on Australia’s ABC TV this October. The premise is a Muppets-style “what if puppets got PG-13?!” deal: Randy, a hard-drinking purple humanoid, is crashing with his incompetent lawyer friend Sammy J after a rough divorce. Most of the jokes come from the standard shock-them-with-contrast approach — a puppet who has sex! Songs with dirty jokes in them! It falls pretty flat, particularly when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is raising the bar for musical TV over on the CW.

In short: if Seeso hopes to make itself a necessary destination for comedy fans, it’s got a long way to go before it can compete with the likes of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman or HBO’s stand-up specials. The idea of a comedy-only streaming service isn’t a bad one, but in the era of Peak TV, it takes more than specialization to stand out from the crowd.