In mid June, Variety suggested the end times were near for the current business model of NBC’s comedy-centric streaming platform, Seeso, which premiered January 2016 with the promise of being site for comedy lovers of all stripes and a streaming library that included Saturday Night Live, current late night programming, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Now the company has reportedly been “laying off staff members as part of an ongoing change,” while other “staffers are being reassigned to other units within NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises.” The news comes just over a month after Vulture learned Evan Shapiro, the executive vice president of NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises who launched Seeso, would be stepping down from his post as Maggie Suniewick, the digital wing’s newly promoted president, took over.
Despite the apparent “re-organization,” however, Variety and Vulture report new original programming — like the fictional Tonight Show tale There’s… Johnny! — will continue to premiere through 2017. After that it’s anybody’s guess, as the latter cites multiple sources who believe “the service is, for all intents and purposes, on its way out.” In followup emails, Uproxx has learned that “no decisions have been made at this time,” and “it’s currently business as usual” at Seeso. Whether or not this continues to be true remains to be seen, but with Shapiro’s departure and the churning rumor mill, things aren’t looking so great.
There’s a chance to reverse this, however, and it rests with something the service is already doing well. For as entertaining as shows like Hidden America with Jonah Ray and Take My Wife are, the streaming platform has distributed some of the best specials of the past 18 months. Recognizable names like Janeane Garofalo and Brian Posehn count themselves among these offerings, but the real goods lie in material offered by lesser-known acts like former SNL player Sasheer Zamata and experimental wunderkind Rory Scovel. If the powers that be concentrated their efforts on producing or securing the rights to similarly fantastic hours from up-and-coming comedians, re-branded themselves accordingly, and began targeting an underserved audience of stand-up fans, Seeso just might survive.
“Hold on a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “The Netflix comedy boom is in full swing, so what’s the point of competing against that?” It’s a fair question, as the streaming giant recently premiered one new special a week in May — including new releases by Tracy Morgan, Norm Macdonald and Sarah Silverman. The service also released new specials by Lady Dynamite‘s Maria Bamford and The Daily Show‘s Hasan Minhaj, entertainers who aren’t as well known for their stand-up. Yet Netflix got its start propelling comics like Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Chelsea Peretti and Chelsea Lately alum Jen Kirkman, so there’s no reason why Seeso cannot do (or continue doing) the same.
“Doing comedy right now is a really exciting and bizarre experience. We have a ton of control over our lives and our products. Also, there’s a huge demand to make stuff. As fast as you can churn things out, you can figure out something to do with it,” Cameron Esposito told Uproxx last year when Seeso premiered her first special, Marriage Material. “You can tweet every hour, on the hour, and you can record a video and put it directly up. It’s just a very different time. Every comic is sort of their own network right now.”
The Take My Wife co-creator and co-star isn’t wrong, as social media has become a comedic force all its own. Television shows like @midnight have adeptly captured this, while many of its brightest starts — including comedian and director Bo Burnham — have transitioned to the mainstream with great success. Seeso is positioned to capitalize on this continuing momentum, but only if it recognizes stand-up’s potential as a streaming genre all its own, as AMC has with the horror-centric service Shudder. The quicker NBC’s digital team can “figure out something to do with it” all via Seeso, the better.
As for Esposito’s excitement about the popularity of stand-up, the numbers don’t lie. Billboard estimated in 2015 that the live comedy industry alone generated $300 million a year solely on ticket sales. Meanwhile, stars like Kevin Hart and Louis C.K. were selling out football stadiums and Madison Square Garden in New York, and earning year-end figures not seen since Steve Martin’s heyday in the 1970s. As for the production and distribution of new specials, Netflix and Seeso aren’t the only outlets in business. Comedy Central, Showtime and HBO remain as involved as ever, while Epix, the Australia-based Stan., and YouTube’s premium service have joined in on the fun.
That’s a lot of stand-up, though the one advantage Seeso may still possess is specialization. None of these streaming platforms or networks bill themselves as the streaming source of stand-up comedy. Not a single one has taken the same approach as Shudder, which exclusively curates selections from the horror genre for horror fans, or the Spotify-like Laugh.ly, which streams audio-only performances for the biggest comedy nerds. If Seeso pounces on the talent pool it already possesses (like Zamata, Esposito and Scovel) and re-brands itself as a home for all newcomers, it may survive — while saving original shows like Hidden America in the process. The audience for it already exists, and NBC would be foolish not to tap into it.