Evan Shapiro’s resume includes everything from a stint at the Public Theater to serving as president of IFC TV and Sundance TV, but in 2014 he moved to NBC to begin building the product now known as Seeso, a subscription digital channel tailor-made for comedy nerds.
That razor focus is by design, as Shapiro explained to Indiewire during a sit-down at the Seeso offices earlier this fall. Launching in beta today (December 3), Seeso features an epic amount of library content, including many niche British comedies, the entire run of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and all 41 years of “Saturday Night Live.” But it’s also launching with a number of original series, including sketch comedy series “The UCB Show” — an exclusive clip of which (featuring Noel Wells) can be seen above.
Below, Shapiro explains how Seeso fits into the larger NBC Universal empire, what subscribers will get for their $3.99 a month and what makes it different from other digital platforms — which goes well beyond the content it’s making available.
So I’ll admit that I didn’t really get the name until I watched the first trailer that you guys released.
I mean if Google and Yahoo! and Amazon can become part of the nomenclature, then pretty much anything can. And I’ve been naming things for a long time. Actually back when I had my own agency, part of what I would do is name things for people. And that was very profitable because you just came up with a name. What I’ve said to a thousand people through all this process is, “Just pick a name.” Just pick a name. The brand you build around it based on the content is significantly more important than the name or the letters that you put there. As long as it’s memorable, that’s all that really matters. I mean our unique selling proposition is we get you the good shit. And if you doubt that, come and see so for yourself. We put it together.
The big thing, of course, is getting people in. I’m curious how you guys are approaching that.
I always start from the content, so that was my campaign. Bring in the noise, bring in the funk. If you have great content, let that lead. And so that teaser that we did has all our great talent in it. You know, one of the first calls I made when I got this job was to the Pythons because their stuff has never been in its entirety on a streaming service. It’s not on Amazon. It’s not on Netflix. It’s not on Hulu. And I called them and asked them and they said, “No one has ever asked.” So, we’re leading with the content. When you look at our slate, the audience that we’re targeting is really comedy nerds and people that would like to be comedy nerds. Everybody finds something different to point to. “Nathan Barley”: When I present the slate, a lot of people focus on that one little show that no one in the States has really seen.
I’ve had DVDs of that thrust into my hands.
Exactly. “Mighty Boosh” is another one of those shows. So, what we like to say we’re doing is mapping the comedy genome. We start with great DNA. The great bones of “The Office,” the NBC late night comedies — which is the best late night comedy block on television — “Monty Python,” “Nathan Barley” and “The Mighty Boosh.” And then we move out and create a monster based on those genes. We have “Saturday Night Live.” We’re using the content to lead, and then the price was really meant to be a no brainer. What we really wanted to try and do was create a great pool of content that you can access anywhere at any time and then make it at a price that just says, “Well, what the fuck? I’ll give it a try.”
Everyone wants to call this a service, but we see this as a channel. Netflix is a service. Amazon is a service. Hulu is a service. They’re actually providing you a utility for you, versus programming it from a kind of human perspective. Our killer technology is human beings. So we really want to program it from a human perspective versus the machine’s.
It is meant to be artisanal. That’s exactly right.
So how would this compare to, say, with what CBS is doing with All Access?
Well, I mean, CBS All Access is literally a regurgitation of CBS online with a bit of library. The major difference here is this is a brand new channel with its own brand and its own original programming.
But with a heavy emphasis on NBC?
I wouldn’t say that. There’s a few NBC shows, and that’s a huge advantage, but if you look at what people are most excited about so far, it’s the combination of the originals and this interesting library of stuff. So yeah, we have a shelf of NBC stuff, but we also have a great shelf of British comedy. One of the best collections around, I think.
Will ABC, CBS and FOX content also be incorporated?
Let’s put it this way: We’ve had conversations with every major programming party in America and don’t be surprised if we have content from other programmers. I don’t know about ABC, CBS and FOX, necessarily — although we’ve had conversations with pretty much everybody. But you’ll see content from other programmers on the channel.
The question becomes: What can you make distinctly yours? We have the exclusive rights to anything Monty Python has ever done. We have the exclusive rights to “Kids In the Hall.” “Nathan Barley,” we’re going to be the only channel out there with it. And there’s all our originals. We have the exclusive rights to the “Caroline’s Comedy Hour” from the ’90s. That’s a hundred hours of stand-up comedy, including the first-ever television appearances of Dave Chappelle and Jon Stewart. No one else has access to it. We’re remastering it into HD for the first time. That was from A&E. We’re looking for the stuff that fits versus the stuff that just gives us volume. And so there is stuff from other programmers. Problem is a lot of it’s been sold a thousand times, so if it’s ubiquitously available, how does that necessarily help us?
With “Saturday Night Live,” there’s like 18 places you can watch that.
But the only place you can get all 40 years — and now, next day, commercial-free — is us.
What is the relationship between NBC and Seeso like?
We have a ton of their old content and current content from the late night blocks on our service. We see ourselves as a compliment to what they’re doing. I think they do as well. But honestly we are the downtown little cousin of NBC. Yeah, we definitely have Thanksgiving dinner together and they say hey to us when they see us, but they’ve got a big broadcast mandate ahead of them. They have to do things like “The Voice” and “Sunday Night Football.” So, they’re trying to reach a much larger audience. We are servicing a very specific niche audience and trying to do it in a tone that is distinctly un-broadcast.
It’s a good relationship. I mean, we share a lot of resources. We share kind of the back office together. So, it’s a good relationship. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We’re going to promote each other. I think NBCUniversal does a tremendous job of promoting things that are important to our company. If you look at the year that the film group has had, it’s amazing. And a decent part of that comes from the fact that we all support every project that we’re doing — “Mr. Robot” being a really good example on USA. We all got behind that. So, we’ll be promoting their stuff. They’ll be promoting ours. And we share best practices and back-engine mechanisms.
But the websites of NBCUniversal are primarily short form. They’re meant to complement the linear brand. They’re mean to be revenue generators primarily through ad sales. Whereas we’re a long-form programming channel and our primary, if not exclusive, revenue stream is subscription. So, we’re a departure from much of how NBCUniversal has looked at digital in the past. We are a premium subscription-only channel. It’s the first time NBCUniversal has ever done something like that, and so I think a lot in talking to the digital council at NBC Universal Comcast, a lot of them are looking at us as kind of like the first step down a potential portion of our portfolio, that could help really future proof the company long term. But it’s still nascent. It’s still early. So, they’re going to watch us and hopefully learn.
When you guys launch, about what percent of the content on the channel would you say is going to be exclusive?
I would say about 10 percent of the content. It’s not terribly different from Amazon, Netflix and Hulu in that way. There’s a lot of stuff that’s shared amongst all the players. But “Kids in the Hall,” “Python,” stand-up. Then we’re doing 20-plus original series. We have exclusive stand-up everyday. And then we’re doing original, exclusive, streaming live stand-up comedy specials. So we’re going to do north of 200 hours of original, exclusive content in our first year. The ratio or the percentages get out of whack when you think, you know, there’s 40 years of “Saturday Night Live.”
So, when you say you’re launching 200 hours of exclusive content that really puts in perspective how large the other 90 percent is. Is that a ratio you want to see change?
That’s a good question. I think that great advantage that we all have– And by 10 percent I mean that’s the original stuff, not the exclusive stuff. The exclusive stuff is probably a larger percentage. And I don’t know that math off the top of my head. We’re going to launch with around somewhere between two and 3,000 hours of original programming. In the first year, somewhere between 200 and 300 hours of that will be original exclusive.
Original exclusive, but not necessarily unoriginal exclusive.
So for example “Python” is exclusive, but not original. “Kids in the Hall” is exclusive, but not original.
So it actually could be more like 40 or 50 percent.
I don’t think it’s that high–
But a larger number than 10 percent?
Correct. And then, the ratio changing. The answer to that is pretty simple. For the first time in my career, I’m going to have direct access to my own data, and the ability to be nimble and change direction in a digital-only platform, based on data that comes to you every day directly from the consumers themselves, versus a third party who uses sampling as opposed to real-time data…
Oh my God, you’re gonna be rolling around in it.
That’s exactly right. I guess my answer to that question is, “We’ll see,” because if the original content is doing great, then yeah, we’d love to have more originals. If the library is the thing that is driving usage and retention, then we’d rather do that. But we’ve interviewed 10,000 people since I started. One-on-one interviews, about 20-25 minutes in length, so we have a nice sampling. And we decided to go heavy on original because the consumers told us that that’s what they subscribe for. That’s what keeps them coming back.
And by the way, we’re going after a very distinctive voice. That is the major other thing. So, you look at the three big [streaming services]: Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. They’re supposed to be the disrupters, right? But when you look at their behavior, especially in the past 12 months, they’re acting a tremendous amount like the big broadcasters did in 1978. They’re trying to cater to all people. All the time. Boomers and children and everyone in between. And that becomes an almost Costco way of looking at the world. Yeah, you can get big bags of corn flakes, but you can’t get kind of bespoke stuff. So, we’re going much more niche; almost like a cable-centric way of looking at it. We want to be the corner cafe to their Costco.
It’s interesting that you bring up Netflix because I think what’s interesting about the way Netflix approached its originals initially was to have a distinct initial aim which was premium, high-end, Emmy-worthy content. It was only recently that they’ve been like, “Okay. Sure. ‘Fuller House.’ Why not?” Do you see SeeSo staying true to the initial brand?
Our theory is: For all the disruption that the big aggregators try to create, they seem to have recreated the bundle that they were trying to disrupt. And so what we’re trying to do is give the consumer a bit more of a choice and by choice we mean that in different ways. Forgetting the pay TV ecosystem for a second. [over-the-top delivery], the appeal of it is the a la carte nature of it, right? My kids are 20 and 17. They don’t watch the kids programming on Netflix. So, whether I want to or not, I am paying for one-third of the content on that service that I’m not using. If we were to approach a wider audience, we’re still going to do so on a la carte basis on this service, with comedy to be the primary focus.
So, if SeeSo Kids were to launch, I wouldn’t be paying for it unless I chose to pay for it?
Hypothetically, if we went into other verticals, we would look into offering each individually, so you’re only paying for what you want. That is a hypothetical because we are launching a comedy channel. The other major difference is the choice of whether or not to binge. Netflix doesn’t give you that choice. Most of the other services are not necessarily giving you that choice. You have to binge or you can’t talk to anybody about that show for six or seven weeks.
But you guys are going…
One at a time. If you want to binge, wait a couple of weeks. I miss the common campfire of Monday morning, “Did you watch that thing?” That’s being lost more and more. Another differentiator is the big aggregators are great if you’re in the middle of a binge, but if you’re just looking for something to watch, you can search for quite some time. It’s kind of like wandering the halls of Costco stoned. Which I don’t really know about because I’ve never been in a Costco. We are playing something when you log on, and most of the time it’ll be something that is brand new to the service that day. We like that. Another thing is that you can watch while you hunt for the next thing you’re going to watch. None of the other services seem to want to do that for some reason. So, we want to give you the option of — just like TV — let this play, and I’m going to search around for the next thing. So, these we think.
Oh, and one major difference: We don’t ask for your credit card for a free trial.
It’s a free trial. Why do I need your credit card?
So that I end up accidentally subscribing?
So, it’s a trick?
That’s kind of bullshit. Don’t you think?
And there’s no time limit to your free trial.
Really? That almost makes it a pay-what-you-want scenario.
It isn’t because… I mean, it is to a certain extent, in that you could log on and get new content every day. Get about 10 to 15 percent of our content. But if you want to watch the second episode of one of our original series– So let’s say you really want to watch Amy Poehler’s “The UCB Show,” which is one of our original comedy shows. Really good stuff. Best sketch people from their LA troupe. We’ll let you watch the first episode during your free trial, but to watch the second, or third, or fourth, then you have to pony up.
That almost makes it a tiered system.
It is to a certain extent. There’s a tier that’s free. We hope you see enough value that you’re going to want to pay. But the idea that you have a limited time to sample it– I mean, people are busy. Why limit people to just two weeks to sample it? Give people time to get acquainted with the service. Especially a brand new service.
So I’m very curious: Netflix doesn’t give its creators numbers. Are you going to give your creators numbers?
That’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve decided, to be honest with you. I think one of the beauties of being ad-free is the viewership numbers are almost meaningless. It’s just subscribers. So, I think we’ll talk to our creators about subscriber numbers. And I do think, obviously, when we talk what to renew and what not to renew or what to greenlight and what not to greenlight, I think we’re going to have to share numbers with our creators at some point, because how do you go to a creator and say, “We’re not bringing the show back.” without saying it’s because people aren’t watching the show? So, that’s a great question. I don’t know if we’ve answered it.
We have three key constituents. No. 1: The consumer. We’ve built this from day one around the consumer, which is why we interviewed 10,000 people before we decided what to do. Second: The artists. We’ve gone to people, we’ve taken pitches from the UCB folks, from Dan Harmon, from Tom Lennon and Ben Garant and Scott Aukerman and Kulap Vilaysack. From Jonah Ray. From Wyatt Cenac. From Cameron Esposito. And we’ve said, “What do you want to do?” And it’s not like we don’t give notes, but it’s all about supporting their vision. I think you’ll see the artist-centric nature of how we approach things.
In the case of the third constituent, that constituent is our corporate parent. We don’t want to do anything that is bad for our company — frankly, the opposite. What we’ve tried to do is give our company a new aspect to their portfolio, that enhances what we are already doing. This isn’t about tearing down what Comcast/Universal/NBC has done. This is about taking the NBCUniversal brand and genome into the next generation. We started with the mission statement of NBCUniversal, and what NBCUniversal does is create content that inspires people. And it’s always done that. And we’re trying to do the same thing. We’re just trying to do it for a new constituency.
So, I mentioned wanting to talk about the technology. How much from the ground up are you building this?
Like the player is brand new?
Everything… I wanted to kind of give it this marriage of old and new. So, digital plus analog. We really want it to feel– If there’s a brand goal, it’s Wuxtry Records in Atlanta. We want to be seen as that record store on that corner where the clerk behind the counter knows exactly what you like and gives you that great new album. You know what I mean? Almost like a vinyl feel.
[Shapiro demos the site, opening the section for “Monty Python.”]
It’s meant to be incredibly clean. No clutter. And this is “Python,” so that’s why it’s not letterboxed.
That’s a big deal for a lot of people. I’m not sure if you caught the controversy over “The Simpsons” being cropped for widescreen?
Yeah. We don’t do that. We’re recoloring this with the Pythons’ involvement, so we won’t crop. We’ll support it.
It’s all really interesting. Like I said, it’s been really interesting tracking all these different services, but what’s really nice is that while back in 2010, I’d hear about launches like this, but while most of those aren’t around anymore, but things are changing.
I think so. I think we’re entering an era where consumer choice is actually going to be the most important aspect of the success of these services versus the luxury of convenience. The portability — at first it was unchained, from your living room, portability anytime and anywhere. And that’s great, but that’s not choice. That’s actually just convenience. I want to know what I’m getting when I walk in the door. I don’t want to necessarily have to slog through a whole bunch of stuff I don’t want to watch, to find what it is that I’m looking for.
The free beta version of Seeso is now live. The monthly subscription fee will be $3.99.
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