At first blush, I have to admit, hearing that NBC was planning a subscription online comedy service struck me as a bad idea, even a laughably bad idea.
On second blush, same way. And on third and fourth, too.
But the idea fits the emerging online environment, which is headed increasingly toward mobile views. Those happen to perfectly suited to a short video format, and that’s what the new planned NBC Universal online comedy outlet seems to want to do.
Reportedly, it would present new material and highlight funny bits from its existing prime-time comedies. It would also live stream full episodes of “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” The venerable late-night sketch show is the perfect example on how and why a short-subject comedy service makes sense. It also seems to work for Funny or Die and the Onion, among others.
You’d have to pay anywhere from $2.50-$3.50 a month for the service, which may turn out to be dramatically serious money for a comedy clip service when cord-cutters/nevers start adding up all the cable-substitutes they’re paying for. And presumably, it would also have some advertising.
Beyond that, you have to suppose there’s magic in an NBC-branded comedy service. That’s a problem, at least in regards to anything it airs before 11:30 at night. It's been a long time since "Seinfeld."
Advertising Age says it won’t debut before the fourth quarter, at best, which to me says NBC really doesn’t know exactly what it will do, but may be trying to find an interesting way to showcase its on-air comedies — which are either dismal or cult hits, but mostly, really, dismal.
The wiser route would be to use the online service to create some series concepts and find some stars and carry them on to TV. In other words, use online as an incubator and repopulate prime time with characters and content that picked up a following online first. Online viewing now reaches enough viewers to make that possible.
The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story, said NBC is also looking at specialized online services for horror, family and faith-based programming, which covers all bases, and really sounds forward-thinking. It also sounds like it might have come out of a weekend retreat brainstorming session where many unconventional ideas are born and then later die after being delivered to the Vice President of Inside The Box for consideration.
USA Today, citing Nielsen numbers, says about 126 million Americans watched a video on smartphone in 2013, up 25% from the year before, and that number, no doubt, has gone up as smartphone and online video use has increased since then. The idea of a network cutting up some of its comedies into smaller pieces and adding some new online matter seems agreeable. There’s built-in marketing, and the possibility something big could come out of it.
But really, maybe this is the beginning of the graceful end for sitcoms, whose half-hour time frame once seemed to make sense but, after all, grew out of radio. Westerns died; why not sitcoms? After all, the reason this idea seems a little hinky is that NBC would have a hard time finding comedy nuggets from the prime-time schedule it has now.
AdAge notes that once NBC rid itself of smart comedies like “30 Rock,” “Community” and “Parks and Recreation,” all it is left with are “theoretically big-audience” shows, which so far have been heavy on the theory part. The online service would be a way to possibly find something that sticks.