Will Louis CK’s download experiment be followed by others?

Over the weekend, Louis CK released his latest stand-up comedy special, “Louis CK: Live at the Beacon Theater,” an hour of all-new material in which he talks about parenting, sex, God, the environment and more. It is, unsurprisingly, a very funny hour of entertainment, as you might expect by the man who currently stands at the top of the stand-up pyramid.

Also unsurprisingly, given the circumstances behind the production of his great FX show “Louie,” CK has used the special as an excuse to try out a new business model. “Live at the Beacon Theater” had no theatrical run, no DVD release, nor even a partnership with a large online media company. You simply go to CK’s own website, spend the more-than-reasonable sum of 5 bucks, and you can download a copy of the special without any kind of restrictions as to what method you use to view it, how you want to copy it, or anything.

The idea, as CK explains it in his open letter about the experiment, was to find out the answer to these questions: “Will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?”

And the answers so far seem to be: 1)No (though copies have, predictably and unfortunately, turned up on various BitTorrent sites); 2)More than 100,000 people as of Tuesday; and 3)Enough to make a profit, albeit not as much as CK could have made by working with a big media company, which would have charged his fans more, provided more restrictions on what they could do with the video, etc.

As with “Louie” – where, as you probably know, CK is given near-total creative autonomy by FX in exchange for making the show at a much lower budget than your normal half-hour show – it’s been a success on CK’s terms. And as with “Louie,” I wonder if/when others will try to follow this model.

There’s a difference between the two, obviously. With the FX show, CK is giving up money in exchange for the ability to make exactly the show he wants without outside interference. With “Live at the Beacon Theater,” he’s trying to do a nice thing by his fans, while also satisfying his curiosity about how online economics can work if you trust people to do the right thing.(*) But he could have made the exact same special with a bigger partner, made more money, and no one would have complained about him approaching business the way every other entertainer does. And I’m very impressed that he chose to do it this way, and that most people seem to have played along.

(*) In his take on the experiment, James Poniewozik draws a line between what CK is doing and a section of the special where he talks about how people are driven by selfishness to do things that eliminate minor inconveniences in their own lives, even if those actions greatly inconvenience others.

Various music acts have tried experiments like this (Radiohead inviting fans to pay whatever they wanted to download “In Rainbows” comes to mind), but they’re operating in an industry where piracy is far more rampant and where the overall business model is a wreck. They’re trying to figure out a better way because they need to. Comedy isn’t anywhere near that point yet, especially not for someone at the top of the profession like CK.

And it does feel like, at this point, the only kind of comedian who could really make this experiment work is someone successful enough that they don’t need to. In his open letter, CK runs through the costs of producing and distributing the special, and they’re not insignificant. He was able to make it work because he already has a huge built-in audience who, even in an age where we’re conditioned to get everything for free, would be willing to pay the 5 bucks to watch the special. If the 2011 equivalent of Dane Cook were just starting to establish a web presence today, he likely wouldn’t be able to afford this idea.

Which brings me to the larger question of how entertainment can transcend traditional distribution models. For all the talk about how we live in an On Demand universe, a TV show has to get exposure through old-fashioned means before people will make the effort to seek it out and watch it through the newer methods. “Lost” could have perhaps moved to a subscription-only model for its final seasons, but only after it had several years to expose itself to the 10-20 million people who watched each week on ABC.

So will “Live at the Beacon Theater” lead to more great content that’s independently produced and distributed, and available through cheaper, less restrictive means than we can get stuff now? Maybe a good way down the road. But it still feels like the stars have to be aligned just right – starting with the star himself being famous and generous and curious enough to try – for many people to do it now.

What does everybody else think? If you’re a CK fan, did you pay for the special? Who else would you subsidize in this fashion? Do you think there are certain kinds of entertainment that lend themselves more easily to this direct-and-cheap model?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

Around The Web