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Will NBC Finally Do Justice to the SNL Library?

Jimmy Fallon on SNL. Photo: NBC

Buried in this week’s news about NBC’s upcoming streaming platform, Peacock, was some very promising news for longtime Saturday Night Live fans: Peacock will become the new home for every season of SNL that has completed its run since premiering in 1975.

For those who have been hoping for the full archive to return in some form, this news is a huge relief, since vintage SNL episodes have bounced around a lot over the last decade. In late 2010, both Hulu and Netflix struck nonexclusive deals with NBC to include every episode of SNL including new ones after they aired — on their streaming services, but by the end of 2013, most of the seasons had been pulled from both. That same year, Yahoo also struck a one-year deal to stream a vast archive of SNL sketches, musical performances, and behind-the-scenes clips, then in 2016 — the same year Yahoo Screen shut down — the SNL episodes made the move to NBC’s comedy streaming platform, Seeso. Unfortunately, Seeso shut down the following year, so there’s been nowhere to watch the full archive of vintage SNL episodes since 2017. Hulu, however, still has about 20 seasons available, including the first five, as well as next-day episodes from current seasons, including the upcoming 45th season.

But even if huge portions of the SNL library have been streaming for a decade, there’s a case to be made that no video platform has yet fully exploited the potential of such a deep well of content. Netflix and Hulu offered every past episode of the show, but little else: no bonus content, no specialized playlists of themed sketches. While it produced or co-produced some solid original content during its brief life in 2016 and 2017 — such as Flowers and HarmonQuest — NBCUniversal-owned Seeso didn’t do much to bring added value to the SNL library. It did offer curated sketch playlists, but unfortunately for SNL fans, that only lasted less than two years, and no other bonus content was offered. That’s not a knock on Seeso’s management: NBCU didn’t give the service much of a budget, and it probably made sense to spend those limited dollars on fully original ideas.

So will Peacock treat SNL any differently than the show’s previous online homes? There’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that it might. As part of its official unveiling this week, the NBCU streaming service announced it had ordered Who Wrote That?, a docuseries profiling some of SNL’s “most important writers.” The new show is being produced by Monk creator Andy Breckman, who also wrote for SNL in the mid-’80s (he penned the famous Eddie Murphy SNL short “White Like Me”). The simple existence of Who Wrote That? will serve as a billboard to Peacock subscribers underscoring the fact that the service offers every SNL episode ever, while also encouraging them to check out specific sketches from writers profiled on the show. And while Peacock reps aren’t commenting on programming plans, it would seem a no-brainer to assemble, say, the best Conan O’Brien–penned sketches into a single playlist (or at least a playlist of episodes featuring O’Brien’s best, if for some legal or budgetary reason it’s not possible to serve up single sketches on Peacock).

Indeed, Peacock could differentiate itself from Hulu and Netflix by curating the hundreds of SNL episodes the way FX has done with its Simpsons World website and app. There ought to be a collection of all the Halloween and Christmas episodes in one place, for instance, rather than making users hunt each one of them down. Writers profiled for Who Wrote That? could choose their favorite sketches or episodes from other writers or actors, and if Peacock is feeling particularly bold, it could spend the money to have them film new introductions.

Ironically, the only serious digital curation of SNL’s library was offered ever-so-briefly in 2013 by Yahoo, which made a one-year deal to host the archives exclusively. It made it super easy for fans to search for specific sketches, and there were bonus features, such as behind-the-scenes and making-of clips, plus sketches cut from dress rehearsal. NBC duplicated some of this functionality and curation when it launched an SNL app in 2015, but the app has since been deactivated and the show’s content folded into the NBC app. Given that SNL is far more important to NBCUniversal and Peacock than it ever was to Yahoo (or Hulu, or Netflix), it would make sense for the new platform to make SNL something other than a bullet point on a press release.

Another way to lure subscribers and boost engagement would be for Peacock to spend the time and money needed to make sure past episodes streamed the way audience saw them when they first aired, i.e., with musical performances and short films included. The sad reality of the SNL library is that, even when every episode has been offered to stream, episodes from season six onward don’t include musical numbers. Some don’t even contain short films, like those produced by Lonely Island for SNL. The reason for this is money: Licensing music is time-consuming and expensive (often ridiculously expensive). But it can be done. Seasons one through five, which were released on DVD in the early aughts, have most (if not all) of the show’s groundbreaking early music performances. In the past, NBC and Lorne Michaels’s Broadway Video probably didn’t see an upside to investing the energy in getting music rights since they were simply leasing the show to an outside supplier. But Peacock is part of the NBCU family, and SNL is a potentially powerful tool to get subscribers invested in the service. Making SNL episodes whole again would seem to be well worth the investment.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Seeso did not offer curated playlists of SNL sketches. It did, in fact, feature themed playlists of sketches but no bonus content.

Will NBC Finally Do Justice to the SNL Library?