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Move over Netflix, Amazon: Sony’s Crackle is ramping up

Jerry Seinfeld in "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."Jerry Seinfeld in "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."
Jerry Seinfeld in "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee."Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television

The timing seemed suspicious. First, actor Dennis Quaid had what appeared to be a profane tantrum (“THIS IS GARBAGE! B___ME!”) on video – which went viral. Then Jerry Seinfeld, in a spontaneous display of candor, spawned another online furor by declaring “TV is over,” and ripped YouTube as a “giant garbage can … for user-generated content.”

Both Quaid and Seinfeld have been touting their web series for Crackle, Sony Pictures Entertainment’s digital-only network. As it turns out, Quaid’s Christian Bale moment, 3 million YouTube views and counting, wasn’t orchestrated by Crackle – it was for Funny or Die. “ It just happened to be a great coincidence,” the actor, 61, told Fortune, adding he’d done it for the Will Ferrell comedy site. “It was just a fun thing to do … I didn’t expect it to go as viral as it did. We got a big laugh out of it.”

Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee debuted three years ago on Crackle. The web show is entering its sixth season as a bona fide hit, with 100 million-plus streams so far. This year the ad-supported streaming service makes a bigger push into original programming featuring marquee names. It announced its first scripted, dramatic series, The Art of More, starring Quaid and an animated comedy SuperMansion, starring Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad. With Netflix and Amazon Prime challenging networks for eyeballs and Emmy nominations, Crackle is eager to get in the game – but Jerry Seinfeld alone can’t guarantee success.

Enter Dennis Quaid.

“I kind of compare what’s going on in television now to what was going on in the movies back in the ’70s,” says Quaid, who recently starred in the CBS drama Vegas. “It’s a time where you feel like the inmates are taking over the asylum. Where anything can happen. And you have all these new ways to watch. You have all these great stories. I mean, let’s face it: I feel like the networks — the main networks — are really not in touch with what most people want to watch as far as content and how they want to watch it.”

This week, Quaid is in Montreal filming The Art of More, which premieres this winter. It explores the competitive side of the premium auction house industry. Quaid, an executive producer, plays a scheming, self-made real-estate mogul with political aspirations in what may represent a tonal departure for the testosterone-flavored platform. Crackle’s execs think it could turn out to be a defining breakout show on par with AMC’s Mad Men or Netflix’s House of Cards.

Cranston will be a has-been superhero in the animated stop-motion comedy SuperMansion, slated for fall. Eric Berger, Crackle general manager and executive vice president of digital networks at Sony Pictures Television, says Crackle is aiming to reach a “tech-savvy group of men and women,” aged 22-39.

As it evolves, Crackle brings to mind a basic cable channel like the 21st Century Fox-owned FX, which pairs mainstream studio films (Captain America: The Avenger) and sitcom re-runs (Two and a Half Men) against acclaimed original series (Louie, The Americans, American Horror Story) designed to play in the same prestige-TV leagues as HBO.

The June 4th installment of Comedians in Cars, for instance, features Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and future Daily Show host Trevor Noah in the passenger seat; on July 16 Crackle will have the premiere of Joe Dirt: Beautiful Loser, the sequel to the bawdy 2001 David Spade comedy. And next spring, Crackle has Dead Rising, a follow-up to the videogame-inspired zombie thriller film Dead Rising: Watch Tower that began streaming last month. Capo, a mob drama, is in development. At a conventional TV pace, new episodes of Sports Jeopardy! (hosted by Dan Patrick) drop each Wednesday. Fanboy favorite Resident Evil sci-fi franchise is perpetually on tap. (Those films are part of the Sony library.)

Beyond original content, Crackle aims to attract consumers and advertisers through the rollout of a design upgrade that features a new product, Always On, mimicking old-school linear television. Users can click into Crackle’s smart TV apps and watch whatever’s playing at the time — or scroll through related on-demand video via a carousel that presents choices in a way that does not deluge the viewer, Netflix-style, with a seemingly endless menu of binge-watch bait.

It’s “like a sea of one-sheets,” says Berger. “And when you’re in that sea of one-sheets, it can be very overwhelming. And when you choose something, if you don’t like it, there’s a lot of pressing the back-button and menus to come back out to the main point of search and then starting that whole search process again. And it’s why it doesn’t really feel like TV. And it’s one of the things that had come up with our research with consumers — that there’s still is a large population that’s just looking for that relaxing and mindless feeling, sometimes, of just seeing what’s on, particularly if you like the brand of the network and what they curate for you.”

If Berger wants to reinvent the wheel, then he’s got a powerful ally in Seinfeld, a master of his domain, who essentially disrupted how people viewed the regular old television sitcom and made enough money to buy a car for every single comedian in America. (Sony Pictures Television distributes Seinfeld in syndication.)

TV according to Seinfeld might be over, but he continues to toy within a familiar format.

Erin Carlson is an entertainment journalist and former editor at The Hollywood Reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @ErinLCarlson.