Behind the Screens: Seeso’s Head of Programming on Curating Comedy for Streaming

Logo for the streaming app SeeSo.

Logo for the streaming app Seeso. Via SeeSo

Welcome to “Behind the Screens”, where we interview the people in charge of arthouse and indie programming across all platforms. Along the way, we’ll uncover some of the challenges, thrills, and secrets of the trade and, hopefully, get a sense of what gives the American cinematic landscape its unique identity.

In the world of streaming services, it’s clear that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are true giants. With their seemingly infinite subscriber bases and unfathomable catalog depth, how can any other streaming apps survive? Well, they can take a page from the Jack-Be-Nimble playbook and use their speed and smarts to keep the giants at bay. In the case of Seeso, the year-old subscription service owned by NBCUniversal (and overseen by NBCU EVP Evan Shapiro), that meant focusing on a specific genre with a rabid fanbase (alternative comedy) and curating a lean, mean slate of original and archival content. To learn more about Seeso’s programming strategy, we chatted with Head of Programming Kelsey Balance. 

How did Seeso define and establish its brand identity? 

We really hit the ground running. From day one, we were building our team and our strategy, while also having to pick up shows and put them in production so that they could potentially be ready within nine months to a year. The idea was that Amazon and Hulu are like the broadcast networks of this space, and they use every type of format and genre of content in order to reach every eyeball. So we asked ourselves, “How can we be more like the cable equivalent to them?” We decided on a more specific focus, a more specific audience. And, in our research, what we found was that everyone has everything at their fingerprints, which is great, but there’s that paradox of choice. You turn on your average streaming service, and there’s just a ton of content, and you end up spending the 30 minutes you had to watch something just searching and obviously not coming to a decision. Also, we wanted to offer this more specific comedy content for the true – I like to call them “comedy nerds” because I am one myself – and helping them discover new content. We started off creating a foundation of acquisitions, like all 41 years of SNL, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall. Those were the three acquisitions that we knew true comedy fans would love. Then, we got more things that true comedy fans would at least know about, like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh, and Alan Partridge. Then, there are the NBC comedies like The Office and Parks and Rec. From there, we ended up commissioning 23 original series.

Since everything Seeso offers is comedic, how did you go about diversifying your catalog so that it didn’t seem like you were offering hundreds of hours of the same kind of thing? 

We really created a comedy genome of sorts. We tried to be thoughtful about how all of these shows connected, taking more of a human curation perspective, either talent-based or tone-based or format-based. It was about figuring out why someone would go from Steve Carell’s version of The Office to Ricky Gervais’s Office to The I.T. Crowd to some of our new office comedies. All in all, it was about creating a system where it all felt of a larger whole with a specific intention.

As far as the archival material goes, you have a lot of it, but it sounds like you stand behind the quality of each and every show, as opposed to something like Hulu, which seems like it just grabbed as many shows as humanly possible, regardless of quality. 

Exactly. We’re very conscious of making sure our platform doesn’t ever feel too overwhelming or cluttered because, going back to our goal of helping people who love comedy discover new comedy, the more specific our offerings are, the more effective we can be. So, even though our original programming is actually driving 80-90% of our new subscriptions, our focus groups and continued research show that our audience supports the importance of the archival titles. It’s a way of establishing our brand credibility that we can then leverage to show them why they should take a chance on our original shows.

Kelsey Balance, SeeSo's head of programming.

Kelsey Balance, Seeso’s head of programming. Via Tory Stopler

Talking about the 23 series you’ve commissioned, what were your goals in terms of content? Was it about realizing you needed certain genres of shows represented or did you just look around and take the best ideas that were already being pitched?

in the beginning, we were running so quickly that we had to depend on our instincts, which was a hard thing for me, personally. I prefer to create a plan and then execute it, but it was great because it allowed us to just trust this vision that we had for the service. We knew we wanted to try every type of format, and we had an idea of what we thought people would respond to. As comedy fans ourselves, we love sketch and improv and all the formats that don’t get to be on traditional television as much. Also, the fact that we don’t have advertising has helped us have a lot more freedom. We don’t need to think of our audience in terms of demographics, so we can just ask, “What’s the point? What’s the intention? What’s the point-of-view? What’s the tone? Does it fit the larger family of shows we’ve created?” And kind of by accident, we wound up tapping into this alternative comedian world, especially here in LA and New York, where all of the comedians we’ve been working with are friends outside of the work that they do, which has been amazing for us. We feel really lucky to be able to work with that community.

When you first made yourselves known to these alternative comedians, did you have to convince them you weren’t this evil corporate entity trying to co-opt their work? 

I think that was part of our strategy, too. Starting with talent and reaching out to the talent that we were fans of ourselves. We really believed in their voices and in the art they were creating. We had previous relationships with some of them from other jobs, and those people were really excited to come back. Others, we didn’t know, and we had to convince them why they should work with us. We really enjoyed sitting down with them and showing them our strategy and our foundation of acquisitions. A lot of them, when they saw the British content, were like, “Oh, that’s awesome! You guys totally get it!” Another thing our talent has told us is that it feels like the early days of podcasting, where they truly have the freedom to make projects they really care about and have more ownership of. That was the kind of promise that we were able to lay out for them and deliver on.

So far, in my explorations of Seeso, I’ve seen some cursing, some violence, no nudity, as of yet. Are there any sort of content guidelines you’ve laid out?

Because we don’t have advertisers, we don’t have specific standards or limitations, but at the same time, from a creative perspective, our philosophy is just making sure none of it’s gratuitous. We think authenticity is the most important aspect of our shows, and so, in terms of censorship, we just never want to feel we’re gratuitous in any way. Everything should feel really intentional and authentic to the world.

In terms of budget, we don’t have to talk specific numbers, of course, but is the budget of, say, Take My Wife on par with a cable show or is it closer to a traditional web series? 

I’d say most of our shows are on par with lower-end cable. Actually, Take My Wife is a specific one that’s a great story. Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, they’re an example of talent we just loved. I’ve been a fan of their work for a long time, especially being from Chicago. They have a great weekly show at UCB, and so, we were going to do a stand-up series with them, where they would curate up-and-coming stand-ups. Then, a few weeks before production, they came to us and said, “We feel like this is the perfect opportunity for us to tell our story. We have a way we want to do it, and we would love the chance to be able to do stuff that’s really important to us.” And we believed so much in them and their story that we said yes and greenlit it. They asked for a little bit more money, so we invested a little bit more money in it. But, for the most part, they were able to produce that show on a budget that we had for the previous version. That was one that was a very special show and an example of what we do here, which is support talent and help bring what they have to say to life.

Unlike most streaming services, Seeso, on its startup screen, does have a linearly programmed video feed. What was the decision behind creating that and how is that feed programmed?

Early on, when we were deciding what we wanted the product to look like, one of the problems we’d identified was that issue of searching through the library and getting lost and not really deciding on anything to watch. So we thought if we could have something playing right when people turn it on, either that would compel them to watch that piece of content, or it would just give them something to look at while searching for something else. So, basically, going back to that more traditional model of looking through the channel guide and having something playing in the right-hand corner while you’re searching.

What is your programming strategy for that feed? 

There really is a big focus on how to service certain content. One of the things we’ve seen is Sunday mornings are when people are most likely to watch SNL, which makes sense because the biggest episode is probably the one from the night before. But we found people then spend a lot of time watching the library content of SNL, as well. So we started to highlight the best of SNL, both from the night before, as well as from other seasons, to encourage people to then go check out more SNL. It’s easy to service the late night stuff during the week, as well, because similarly, it’s the night before. But we do mix in some of our originals in there, as well.

Have there been any specific strategic changes that you’ve made based on the feedback you’ve received? 

Yes and no. I think that the originals attracting such a large proportion of our new subscribers definitely solidified our focus on original series, and I think we took a big swing with standup that seems to really be paying off. I think, especially with stand up, we wanted to try a strategy that felt unique to us. You have some of the more traditional places who are more focused on household names, bigger names, and our stand up slate last year was pretty diverse, in terms of talent, and we loved that. In general, that stand up as a category is something the audience responds to is informing how we look at it going forward. One tricky thing about programming is that we’re always operating a year out, so right now, in January, we’re looking at shows for 2018. We’re trying to extrapolate where we’ll be, what we’ll need, what will work, taking risks that will pay off by then.

Your movie category doesn’t really have that many traditional feature films. Is that going to change down the line?

The early research we did, in terms of creating our programming strategy, was that on streaming services, people didn’t watch films as much as they would watch series. So we decided to spend most of our time on the series and the originals and take a more curated approach to film. We’ve just acquired a film from the creator of our TV series, Flowers, which is an amazingly beautiful, dark comedy that is very much in the world of Flowers, which has had such a passionate fan base develop around it that we knew our audience would love it. We’re going to be premiering that in March. And last year, we ended up acquiring a documentary from Morgan Spurlock called Pistol Shrimps, which is about an intramural basketball team where the players all happen to be comedians. It wasn’t something we were looking for, but we had talked to the girls in the film, just from a talent perspective, and really loved what they were doing. And Aubrey Plaza is one of the players and actually appeared in our show Harmonquest as a guest star. So, overall, we’re programming kind of fun, unexpected, curated things that fit into our larger strategy and programming map of shows, but aren’t necessarily traditional.

Seeso recently teamed up with VRV, which pairs up many different streaming services like the horror channel Shudder and anime channels like Funimation and Crunchyroll. What was behind the decision to do that? 

I think our goal is to try to be everywhere our audience could potentially be, and we love the strategy of what VRV is doing. We also had a very successful partnership with Amazon Channels, being a part of their larger service. So, with VRV and their audience demographic they were going for, it felt like a great fit for us, and we felt that there were definitely people there who were already Seeso consumers or who could be Seeso consumers, and our programming fits well in the larger, curated library they’re building.

You mentioned not having to deal with advertisers, so how do you decide which series get renewed for another season? 

We’re evolving so quickly, and the whole industry is evolving so quickly, that defining success is something that remains fluid. For us, it depends on the show. There are certain shows that got some great critical acclaim, and that’s potentially one reason to bring a show back. Other shows, they get a ton of viewership. So it’s hard to define as one thing, which I love, because it allows our shows to find an audience because they’re seriously up on the service forever. There are certain shows we’ve seen have slow growth over time, but still get word of mouth, which is almost as valuable or even more valuable than a show that gets a ton of people through the door right away. It’s an evolving thing, if that makes sense. But the best part of it from my perspective is taking risks, trying new things, and having those risks sometimes be the most successful things. The ability to do that is really rewarding.

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Behind the Screens: Seeso’s Head of Programming on Curating Comedy for Streaming