He isn’t a streaming service, exactly, but when Louis C.K. dropped the first episode of his new series “Horace and Pete” last Saturday, it had the feeling of a gauntlet thrown. Written, directed, produced, financed, and distributed by the comedian himself, “Horace and Pete” isn’t just the ne plus ultra of “auteur TV” — it’s an attempt to cut out the middleman and connect with consumers directly in a market crowded, as C.K. wrote in a follow-up email, with “the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself.”
Though C.K. described the decision to offer “Horace and Pete” through his website as an artistic one — designed to retain the element of surprise, and to emphasize the “live feeling” of the multi-camera format — the move also suggests one of several paths forward in a digital space with an increasing number of niche and independent players. The question is, if you build it, will they come?
C.K.’s foremost advantage is not simply name recognition. He’s also ahead of the Over the Top Content (OTT) curve, turning to the loyal fan base he’s cultivated over the course of five seasons of “Louie” (FX) to sell streaming versions of his stand-up comedy specials and tickets to his popular tours. It’s a simple, flexible, cost-effective business model: C.K. not only sidestepped expensive ad campaigns by sending “Horace and Pete” straight to viewers’ inboxes, but also responded in real time to concerns that the price of the first episode ($5) was too steep, and set future entries at $2 – $3 apiece. With his funny, curse-laden emails, he’s repurposed a strategy from the world of pop music and added a frank appraisal of the current climate to boot. Against the digital realm’s obscure algorithms, his candor is refreshing.
With deep pockets and ambitious programming slates, Netflix and Amazon have already cornered much of the streaming market—and, if Sundance was any indication, are prepared to fight a two-front war with theatrical distributors and traditional TV networks for the foreseeable future. As cord-cutting supplants the DVR as time-shifters’ primary mode of viewing, Hulu can rely on its catalogue of popular broadcast titles as it builds a list of engaging original series, from “Casual” to the forthcoming “11/22/63.” For other players in this fast-changing sandbox, however, the outlook is more complicated. Content may be king, but it won’t matter if potential viewers don’t even know it’s there.
To this end, well-known stars and twists on pre-existing properties remain as popular in the streaming universe as they do with the old guard. Crackle lured Dennis Quaid and Kate Bosworth to appear in its first scripted drama, “The Art of More,” and has featured the likes of President Barack Obama and Will Ferrell on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”; now in the works is “Start Up,” an hourlong drama with Martin Freeman and Adam Brody, that seems set to capitalize on the popularity of Showtime’s “Billions” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Next month, NBCUniversal’s comedy-centric Seeso premieres a spoof of Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” “Bajillion Dollar Propertie$,” with guest star Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”). (Watch a first-look clip above.)
With original series, stand-up comedy, and popular catalogue titles like Monty Python, “Fawlty Towers,” “The Office,” and “30 Rock,” Seeso isn’t just angling to hit consumers’ funny bones. Compared to its digital competitors, its relatively narrow focus marks it as a streaming service committed to carving out a specific space in the online ecosystem from the start. The same might be said of Acorn TV — the current go-to for English-language series otherwise unavailable to U.S. viewers, from British mysteries (Agatha Christie’s “Partners in Crime”) to Australian melodramas (“A Place to Call Home“) — or the British Film Institute’s BFI Player, which is digitizing 70 films as part of its wide-ranging “Shakespeare on Film” initiative this year.
As more and more viewers piece together their viewing diet from a mixture of broadcast and cable networks, premium channels, and streaming services, hardware is increasingly important, too — audiences reliant on Roku, AppleTV, and/or AmazonFire TV can’t find your content if you’re not there. Thus Acorn announced this week that it’s now available via Apple TV and an iOS app for iPhone and iPad, as is an OTT classic movie channel from The Film Detective, which looks to compete with Turner Classic Movies (even as TCM, through its partnership with Fathom Events, expands its theatrical footprint).
It’s impossible to know how this jockeying for position will shake out, though it seems inevitable that certain outlets will grow as others wither and die. What is clear, as C.K. recognized in changing the price of subsequent “Horace and Pete” episodes, is that all the (relatively low) one-off, monthly, and yearly charges for this profusion of ad-free content have begun to add up, at least enough to make viewers think twice before handing over their money. “The dirty unmovable fact is that this show is fucking expensive,” C.K. wrote of “Horace and Pete,” and as “peak TV” becomes peak OTT, the players that resolve this tension — between supply and demand, production costs and price points — are likely to be the survivors.