CC:Stand-Up Direct launched Thursday with 22 original one-hour specials featuring comedians including Daniel Tosh, Anthony Jeselnik, Chris Hardwick, Nick Kroll, Jeff Ross and John Mulaney. Users can stream or download the DRM-free specials, all of which previously aired on the TV network, across a variety of devices.
According to Erik Flannigan, EVP of multiplatform strategy and development for Comedy Central parent Viacom Entertainment Group, “This is a platform that is really a partnership with comedians,” who increasingly want to reach fans directly. “Our mantra when we started this project was, ‘How can we take the friction out?’”
Comedy Central is just the latest entrant to the growing sector of digital services powering direct-to-fan content, a format first popularized in December 2011, when Louis C.K. offered his “Live at the Beacon Theater” special as a DRM-free download for five bucks and earned $1 million in 12 days.
“That was not only a milestone for comedians but also a milestone for direct distribution overall,” says Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor, who unveiled his service’s Vimeo on Demand option at SXSW — an innovation, like YouTube’s paid subscription channels, designed to let comics and other content creators skip the middleman and sell their own material online.
Following Louis’ lead, Jim Gaffigan, Aziz Ansari and a handful of others tried similar direct-to-fan offerings on different platforms while mostly sticking to both the $5 price and the basic format of the standup special. Though their efforts met with mixed success, the results have been encouraging enough to revolutionize the way comedy is bought and sold online, to the extent that
To that end, CC Direct emulates the streamlined model used by Louis C.K. and offered by such platforms as Chill, VHX and Pivotshare — one-click payments, no DRM limitations — but it also takes a bigger piece of the revenue pie.
“As awesome as a direct-to-consumer transaction is for comedians, it also puts the entire marketing burden on them,” Flannigan says. “The one piece of the equation that we can bring the loudest is the marketing. We can tie the exhibition of the special on-air to the transaction on this platform, using the television window to promote what you will put on CC Direct. Of course, we’re still counting on every comedian to activate their fanbase and tell them that their special is available.”
Comedians should be wary of assuming they can replicate Louis C.K.’s model, says Dave Rath, a manager and producer at Generate, a division of Alloy Digital.
“When you put out a new product, whether it’s a special or a CD, it should move the needle in other areas for the act as well. It should affect your touring numbers, it should affect your social networking, giving you an increase in followers, awareness, all of it,” says Rath, who views the direct-to-fan strategy not as the ideal solution for releasing mass-appeal specials, but a more targeted way of shoring up a comic’s existing fanbase (the way client Patton Oswalt’s bootleg-style “222” album gave devotees a chance to hear the full 222-minute performance that was cut down into his “Feelin’ Kinda Patton” one-hour spesh back in 2003).
Along those lines, Rath went the Comedy Central route with Kyle Kinane’s last standup special, but looked to Chill as the ideal outlet to release “Dancing Around the Shit Fire,” a more intimate Chicago-based show intended for fans. It not only felt more laid-back and casual, but was also considerably cheaper to produce, without so many cameras, crane shots and other expenses. Meanwhile, Rath says, “This is a piece that doesn’t burn material that he’s working on for his next one-hour special.”
In other words, when producing content for direct distribution, comics needn’t be constrained by the traditional concert-style special format — typically, the result of nearly a year of developing new material, shot in the biggest possible arena at one of the last stops on the tour. The format, duration and content are nearly all dictated by HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central, which also serve as the gatekeepers of who can actually appear on air.
“You don’t have to ask permission to do a special anymore,” says Chill founder Brian Norgard. “The first thing we say to comedians is: ‘What was the thing you always wanted to do?’ I’m seeing formats that you wouldn’t believe. No one ever would have let Maria (Bamford) do a special in her living room in front of her parents, except us.”
With Chill’s generous 70/30 revenue share model, Bamford reportedly made more in two weeks than she had from all of her other specials combined; her earnings are now well into the six-figure range. Per Norgard, “The internet is an incredible testing bed for new content. With new mediums come new creative flexibility.”
Over at Pivotshare (which provides a payment platform integrated into the video streams themselves, wherever they appear), company founder Adam Mosam is having the same kinds of conversations: Do you want to go back and film a comedy special at your high school reunion? Do you want to shoot a new kind of Web-based talkshow or sitcom?
Mosam sees room for flexibility in both content and pricing: “What Louis C.K. released was a very traditional comedy special, and it was $5. Because everybody who came after said, ‘It’s five bucks,’ you had this magical $5 price point, but using these tools, there’s no reason you can’t do a 20-minute set and charge $1. It’s really about what’s right for the content.”
When Ansari decided to offer his “Dangerously Delicious” special direct to fans, he partnered with a service called VHX that specializes in a “full-stack, end-to-end” solution (building a dedicated web site, handling the video, collecting payment and contact information from consumers). That approach didn’t prevent Ansari from licensing the TV premiere and album rights to Comedy Central, but it “moved the needle” by arming him with the email addresses of all who bought the spesh.
“We view direct-to-fan distribution as totally additive to all of the above,” says VHX co-founder and CEO Jamie Wilkinson. “Basically, everybody should be adding a clause to their contract that allows them to keep their own website.”
Of course, it helps to have leverage. To that end, Rath negotiated a game-changing deal with Comedy Central that reflects the advances of the direct-to-consumer revolution. Per the contract, Comedy Central will debut Oswalt’s next special with minimal commercial interruptions, make it available as a $5 download for fans and license it in such a way that gives him shared ownership again after five years.
“Think of it like this: These guys are owners now. They can take the content across multiple windows, and frankly, they participate in the upside,” says Norgard. “At Chill, it’s really cool being on the same side of the table as the artist. It aligns the incentives in a way that they understand the harder they market the thing they’re creating, the more radio and podcast appearances they do, the more money they stand to make.”
Unlike iTunes and other relatively hard-to-access marketplaces, Chill doesn’t follow “some crazy vetting process,” Norgard says.
While that may seem like a limitation of CC Direct, which launches as a digital delivery service for existing Comedy Central specials, the way the platform was designed, “It could hypothetically become an open platform,” Flannigan says. “Down the road, if you’re a standup comedian that we’re not in business with, you could hypothetically use the platform to post your own special.”