Jerry Seinfeld’s new online show for YouTube is generating a fair amount of attention; if you had created the best sitcom in history, all your creative endeavors would, too. The premise of the show is that Seinfeld borrows a classic car, calls up one of his comedy pals, and the two of them go out for coffee. This is all edited down to 10 to 15 minutes and posted on the “Comedians in Cars” channel on YouTube.
The show has not been universally admired. Some critics find the premise itself offputting. The idea of one rich white guy driving around in a beautiful car and shooting the breeze with another rich white guy is not to everybody’s taste.
A more valid complaint is the unstructured and somewhat self-indulgent nature of the show. It’s not clear how much preparation and planning goes into the production, but you get a definite sense that Seinfeld and his friends are just winging it, to mixed results.
The premiere episode, with Seinfeld and Larry David, should have been terrific since they were the co-creators of the “Seinfeld” series, but David is either bored, cranky, or skeptical about the whole endeavor, so it falls a little flat. The funniest show so far, one that I would happily share with family and friends, is when Seinfeld takes Alec Baldwin out for lunch. Baldwin is not a stand-up comedian, but he’s a great mimic and storyteller and employs his famous chip-on-the-shoulder attitude to great effect. In this case, his grudge is that he and Seinfeld grew up in the same town of Massapequa, Long Island, but that Seinfeld is much richer and more successful, despite not working as hard.
The real question about “Comedians in Cars,” though, isn’t artistic but what it presages for the future of television. Nielsen’s recent announcement that 6% of all three-screen video is watched on computer or mobile platforms means that television’s share of total video viewing is slipping. (For definitional purposes, in the rest of this piece, “television” will refer only to traditional television, both cable and broadcast.)
Youtube has thrown its considerable resources behind an effort to create entertainment channels, the most prominent of which is the new “Comedians in Cars.” Netflix has started to make original content, which will climax in the upcoming launch of new “Arrested Development” episodes. And there are many other original content sites, such as funnyordie.com. Clearly the Internet doesn’t lack for interesting content.
Yet I wonder about the business model. One good thing about YouTube is that it provides its own metrics -- it says right there on the video how many people have watched. Only 200,000 people have clicked on the Larry David episode of “Comedians In Cars,” and other episodes track even lower. And if you used a TV ratings metric of Average Audience (which takes into account how long a viewer watched) it would be far lower than that. With so few people watching. how can you hope to monetize it?
Then there’s the difficulty in watching YouTube videos on TV. I have an Apple TV, and it takes many clicks to spell out “C-O-M-E-D-I-A-N-S” on the screen before the series finally pops up as an option. Who wants to make so much effort for a 12-minute show? The NetFlix offerings are a bit easier to find, but even with NetFlix you need to proactively click around to find what you’re looking for.
And then there’s this: Half the fun of watching television is talking about it with friends afterwards. I don’t know one other person (besides my wife) who’s watching the “Comedians in Cars” series, so I feel like I’m watching it in a vacuum, which makes me feel a little sad and lonely.
The truth is, too much choice can drive you crazy. It’s well-known that the average person only watches 13-15 TV channels every month. The same is true with other media. I only listen to four to five radio stations, seek out five to10 content websites, and listen to five to10 podcasts. It’s exhausting doing all of that. I might find another five to10 YouTube or Netflix sites to follow, but that would still leave thousands of sites never even sampled.
It’s one thing when the average person watches 15 out of 80 available TV channels, but it’s another when the same viewer watches 15 out of 2,000 possible online video sites. With so few people watching each site, who’s going to pay to create that content?