Streaming Services Are the New TV Networks; BFI Joins the Fray

NBCUniversal’s new streaming comedy channel Seeso (video above), unveiled earlier this month by digital guru Evan Shapiro and set to debut in January, isn’t just a harbinger of new material from Dan Harmon (“Community, “Rick and Morty”), Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”), and Wyatt Cenac (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”). It may also be the tipping point at which subscription streaming services finally acquire what cable and premium TV networks have had for years: a brand identity.

Now, the British Film Institute is joining the fray. Its BFI Player +, available now, features 300 titles sorted into novel collections like “British Classics,” “Unavailable on DVD,” “Experimenta,” and “BFI London Film Festival”—not to mention a “film of the week” curated and introduced by popular U.K. critic Mark Kermode. It appears to be a refined and veddy British answer to the pressure on streaming services to differentiate themselves from all the others in an increasingly crowded market. 

Similarly, with original series, stand-up comedy, and popular catalogue titles like Monty Python, “Fawlty Towers,” “The Office,” and “30 Rock,” Seeso, which will cost subscribers $3.99/month for ad-free access, 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.

Like AMC, FX, HBO, Showtime, and the other original programming giants of the “golden age,” Seeso is attempting to craft a reputation that will bring viewers to new series sight unseen. For over-the-top outlets as for the old guard, building a distinctive brand is equivalent to building consumer trust. 

The Seeso annoucement comes on the heels of Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos’ suggestion that the company wants to compete with the likes of Vice Media, with its HBO docuseries and upcoming daily program, in the realm of news, as if to underline the fact that streaming services are indeed the new TV networks.

READ MORE: “From Vice to Netflix, TV News Adapts to an On-Demand World”

Netflix, with a swath of Emmy-winning series (“House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black”) and grand ambitions, has
evolved from an alternative to Blockbuster into HBO’s most powerful competitor
for “prestige”—not just in original scripted series, but also in documentaries and, starting today with “Beasts of No Nation,” fiction films. Amazon, playing catch-up, is analogous to “Showtime,” with a more idiosyncratic slate that includes the lovely “Transparent,” the dreadful “Hand of God,” and the forthcoming “Man in the High Castle.”

Seeso will be chasing Hulu in the comedy realm, as the latter’s recent pickup of “The Mindy Project,” along with well-received originals “Difficult People” and “Casual,” have already begun to define it as a reliable place for off-kilter laughs. And Crackle, whose first scripted drama “The Art of More” premieres next month, is… well, to be honest, I’m not sure even Crackle quite knows what it is yet, but it’s certainly trying to play with the big kids in the sandbox.

READ MORE: “Netflix vs. HBO: In the Battle of Programming Giants, Who’s Ahead?” 

Almost certainly, others will enter the fray. As “peak TV” becomes “survival of the fittest,” the decline in ratings and ad revenues and the shift to digital could kill off old timers before they can make the transition, or encourage upstarts to join in while there’s still room to make a splash.

In this brave new world, “branding,” as offensive as the concept may be, is a prerequisite for standing out in the crowd. (Note that the networks I’ve left out of the conversation—the Big Three of ABC, CBS, and NBC, which cast such large shadows that their identities are amorphous—are those most often described as “on the decline.”) Whether it succeeds or fails, Seeso is a signal that the world in which there are only a handful of streaming services, like the long ago, far away world in which there were only a handful of networks, is already on the wane. Branding is one way to step into the breach

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