New Comedy Channel Seeso to Add a ‘Human Touch’ to Digital Video Consumption

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This conversation is in partnership with Seeso. #YouGetIt.

Today NBCUniversal announced the launch of a new streaming comedy channel, Seeso. The subscription service — which will be completely ad-free — is expected to drop in January 2016 and will be available on all major platforms for just $3.99 per month.

Seeso is positioning itself as an antidote to the “paradox of choice” consumers currently face with the big three streaming services (i.e. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu). By focusing on a single vertical (comedy, in this case) and emphasizing human curation over mechanized recommendations, Seeso is looking to combine the best of both the linear, curated TV experience and OTT (“over-the-top”) video on-demand.

The service is slated to produce an ambitious 21 original shows featuring heavy hitters like Amy Poehler and Dan Harmon, and will feature a hefty archive of comedy favorites such as SNL, Kids in the Hall, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, along with more recent hits like Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock.

In anticipation of the announcement, Splitsider’s Publisher, Michael Macher chatted with NBCU Exec. Vice President of Digital Enterprises, Evan Shapiro about human vs. robot curation, the “artisanal” comedy boom, Seeso’s programming agenda and the future of streaming media.

Okay. In your words, what is Seeso and who is it for?

It’s for comedy nerds, but also people who just love entertainment and who treat it like a collection — not just a passive ‘wash over me’ experience. The world is a sea of content. And whereas certain OTT platforms feel like a superstore, we are the great little restaurant on the corner where you know the chef. Another way to put it is: we don’t want to be a music warehouse; we want to be the record store who just got in the sound you like. Whether it’s Monty Python, which we’re re-mastering, or Nathan Barley, which has never played in the states, or a new Amy Poehler sketch comedy show, we are comedy curators.

Seeso places a strong focus on content curated by humans, not machines. What role does data play in the editorial process?

You know the saying, “Humans for the best, robots for the rest?” There’s no way robots would have recommended Saxondale or Nathan Barley — which has never aired in the US. There’s not enough metadata in the world for that to happen. OTT is almost entirely driven by machines, by the matrix. You end up getting these weird recommendations some of the time.

Those other services are great services for binges — like if I want to binge Transparent or House of Cards in a sitting – but if you’re wandering in on your couch looking casually for something to watch, you can search and search and search and get frustrated. The length of time it takes to get something new to watch is growing not shrinking. We want to take the best things about analog and digital and bring them together. That’s my take on Humans vs. robots.

Right. It’s a commonplace complaint that many streaming services offer a “paradox of choice.” You often spend more time browsing than watching content. Are genre specific platforms with a coherent editorial vision the way forward for consumers?

Seeso is “big niche.” There is a higher propensity to find something which you’re in the mood for right now. The OTT market is maturing and as we mature you’re going to see a mass movement to “big niche.” WWE is actually one terrific example of that. They have a large dedicated fan base looking for a specific kind of experience.

There’s this misperception that “EVERYTHING LINEAR TV BAD” and “EVERYTHING OTT GOOD.” It’s not black and white like that. There’s a lot of great things about linear TV that people love, and a lot of bad things about OTT right now. We want to marry the best of the analog world and the digital world. With Seeso there will be something playing every time you log on. So every day when you log on you don’t have to start searching for stuff – just like with linear television. And our research shows that people really love this. There’s also a function on the service that allows you to both watch and look for the next thing at the same time – to watch and hunt at the same time. That isn’t new technology but better use of existing technology.

Can you tell us a little more about the decision-making process in terms of rolling out both original programming and curating classic comedy content? What can we expect from the Seeso archive?

I executive produced a six-part documentary about Monty Python, called Almost the Truth. So there is a thrill about being the first service ever to have the Python library entirely in one place on-demand at one time. We’re the first to re-master The Flying Circus into HD and we’re doing all of the same things you would do to re-master a great album, so to speak. Just that work alone – we’re doing god’s work. Finding a new audience for people under 30 who may have never seen the Pythons in their full glory – this service offers that. It definitely feels like god’s work. I would also tag along that we’re doing the same work for Kids in the Hall, another show I grew up on, and so it’s great being able to bring those to light in a new way.

And how about originals?

As far as originals, I’m super thrilled about doing a show with Dan Harmon that is kind of a combination of Rick and Morty and Game of Thrones. Ever since Dave Chappelle everyone has been doing this one particular type of sketch comedy show format. With HarmonQuest, we kind of reinvent the form a little bit. It’s shot in front of a live audience. We’re putting on stage a combination of standup and sketch that people have never seen before. This is a very weird nerdy version of Dinner for Five with a fantasy epic woven throughout it with animation that is going to be state of the art.

And we have the best sketch on the service – SNL, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall – but to also be able to work with Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts and Amy Poehler making what we think is a reinvention of the variety show. It’s amazing. I also think Cameron Esposito and her wife-to-be [Rhea Butcher] are the next Ricky and Lucy. Even if they were just awful people I’d still root for them.

So you’re messing with traditional formats while also experimenting with new ones?

We’re making a huge bet on standup in general. Not to take away from the 1,000 or 10,000 person stadium-style concerts bigger comedians are doing, but there’ s a whole other wave of standup led by people like Cameron [Esposito] and Scott Aukerman and Jay Oakerson and Matt Besser and Wyatt Cenac who we think are – not only the next generation of standup – but the next iteration of standup. And there’s even more out there formats we’re going to bring to the table as well. We think we can be the home for that stuff. While we’re not just going to just do a ton of living room standup, but it’s not something we won’t do.

Seeso is being rolled out with an initial price of $3.99. That’s lower than many other streaming services. As consumers shift to an increasingly streaming-based media diet, do you see price points shifting in this direction?

That, by the way, is just one less latte per month. And you shouldn’t be drinking those anyway because they’ll make you feel fat and constipated. But really we’re not looking to replace those other streaming services. By coming in at a lower price what we’re saying is: you don’t have to choose, get both. You asked who is this for. Our consumer research says that the person most likely to subscribe to [Seeso] already use one or more of those other services.

The theory here is: if you look at OTT video, everybody likes to call those services ‘disruptive.’ But at the same time the three big services and are behaving like the big three broadcast services did in 1978 — they think they can serve everyone all of the time. This is the reason why cable originally came into play.

Okay last question. I was told to ask you this. Feel free to answer or not. It’s an open secret that you have some of the best hair in the business. What is your hair routine?

It’s something that is kind of a burden for me. I keep having to tell people, “eyes down here.” I’ll sometimes meet people who have shaved their head and I’m like, check your privilege. Honestly it’s very, very unnerving. It’s something very private between me and my hands.

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