As the TV bundle disintegrates, NBCUniversal tries narrow-casting

January 7, 2016, 5:27 PM UTC
Image Courtesy Apple

Call it The Great Unbundling. Cord cutters are busy getting rid of—or never even signing up for—expensive cable bundles, in favor of cheaper or more appealing alternatives like Netflix. This in turn has forced broadcasters and cable companies to rethink what a bundle means, and many are trying to find smaller, more targeted ways of getting viewers to watch and also pay.

A new subscription service called Seeso from NBCUniversal is an attempt to do just that. The channel, which costs $3.99 per month, has been tested in a limited number of markets since last month, but officially premiered on Thursday. But will it work?

The new service is aimed at comedy fans of all ages, and carries a mix of archived shows such as Kids In The Hall and Monty Python, along with original content. The originals range from a musical series about a man who lives with a puppet to a show co-hosted by founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade, including SNL star Amy Poehler.

A New York Times review found the mix somewhat underwhelming. For example, it found a show that makes fun of people who get drunk and try to explain complicated concepts derivative, since there are already multiple programs that do something similar.

“The service has lots of goodies but only a limited amount of original content to start with, and from the samples available during beta, none of that is exactly mandatory viewing.”

The artistic merits of the service aside, there’s a very serious method behind NBCUniversal’s madness. Namely, an attempt to find smaller micro-markets within the broad TV-watching universe who might be willing to pay smaller amounts for customized content. Sort of like a miniature version of Netflix (NFLX), but more focused, and 100% controlled by the Comcast-owned network.

In fact, NBCUniversal is apparently planning to launch as many as nine more micro-targeted services similar to Seeso, according to Evan Shapiro, the executive VP of digital services for the network.

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Although Shapiro won’t say what these other services will be focused on, it seems likely that they will take a similar approach to different markets—sports being the most obvious one. In effect, the network is trying to carve up its broadcasting universe into a number of smaller narrow-casted services, each with its own paying audience. As the NBCUniversal executive put it in an interview with Decider:

“We feel like we’re providing the curated, niche experience that cable provided in the 1980s with the huge advantage of having watched the last 30 years take place.”

There are a number of obvious problems with this strategy, of course. One is that every new offering like Seeso has to compete for attention in an increasingly fragmented and chaotic environment for television and video content.

The new service and its seven siblings, assuming they are ever launched, don’t just have to compete with Netflix—which plans to spend more than $5 billion this year alone on introducing new comedy and other TV shows. They have to compete with Hulu and HBO and Amazon Prime Video and YouTube Red (GOOG), and new streaming offerings coming from other cable co’s and broadcasters, such as CBS All Access.

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Is anyone going to subscribe to all of these channels? Of course not. Are enough of them going to subscribe to Seeso or any of NBCUniversal’s nine other offerings to make the costs worthwhile? That’s the multibillion-dollar question.

At least NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast, which can make up for some of the shortfall in broadcasting revenue with higher cable fees for the broadband that everyone is using to watch Netflix and HBO and YouTube. As Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter pointed out in a recent column about the Television Critics Association conference, there is an ocean of television out there that may not be so lucky.

“As the first day of TCA starts — with four days of cable — it’s hard not to look at channels like UP, Ovation and the Outdoor Channel, which kicked things off Tuesday, and think: ‘How are you still in business?'”

So maybe The Great Unbundling isn’t the best term for what’s happening to traditional cable television. Maybe The Great Winnowing would be better, or even The Game of Thrones. All we know is that there’s more disruption coming, and quickly.

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