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NBC Thinks It Can Sell TV on the Web Without Competing With Itself

Seeso, a new comedy subscription service, is coming in January. Will you pay $4 a month to watch it?

Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

NBCUniversal wants the millennials (and everyone else) who have stopped watching its shows on TV to watch them somewhere, anywhere. But it doesn’t want to give its remaining TV viewers a reason to leave.

So here’s one of its solutions: Seeso, a $4-a-month, ad-free streaming video service dedicated to comedy.

Seeso will feature a bunch of stuff NBCUniversal already airs on its TV networks, including “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Saturday Night Live,” but will also show non-NBC programming, like old “Monty Python” shows and movies, as well as new stuff it is ordering up itself.

The idea, says Evan Shapiro, the NBCUniversal executive who is launching Seeso, is to create a “complementary” service to NBCU’s linear TV channels, not a competitor. Shapiro joined NBCUniversal less than a year ago and is running its new “digital enterprises” unit, which may launch other themed subscription services down the line.

(NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast, which has invested in Vox Media, which owns this site.)

Other big TV networks are trying different strategies to capture millennials and other people who don’t want to pay for traditional TV bundles. HBO, for instance, now sells a standalone, digital version of its network via HBO Now. Other programmers, like Viacom, are reluctant to offer access to new shows to viewers who don’t have a pay TV subscription, but will sell reruns to digital outlets like Amazon.

NBCUniversal’s attempt to build a new revenue stream without cannibalizing existing ones is that much more complicated, because a lot of its stuff is already available digitally, via outlets like Hulu (which it owns a piece of) and YouTube.

As the Wall Street Journal had previously reported, at one point NBCUniversal was considering pulling clips of “The Tonight Show” and other shows off of YouTube and keeping almost all of the show behind the new service’s paywall. Instead, NBCU has struck a deal with YouTube to sell ads on the content it shows on the world’s biggest video site.

Shapiro argues that Fallon and SNL fans will pay to use his service because they can watch those shows without ads. But he says he is really banking on new exclusive content, like a variety show featuring Amy Poehler and the rest of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv group, to keep subscribers around. Seeso plans on launching 20 new shows in its first year.

All of this is theoretical at this point, since the service won’t launch widely until January.

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