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A new streaming service just for classic TV and film launches today — and it’s free

The big four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC — don't really have specific brands. They're nebulous, offering drama, comedy, reality, and whatever else they put on the air. They're the giant department stores of TV.

Cable channels are more like specialty stores. ESPN is for sports fans. Nickelodeon is for kids. TNT knows drama.

The same is now happening with streaming services. We have a "big three" — Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. We have offshoots of TV networks, like HBO Go and Showtime Anytime.

And now we're starting to see the rise of specialty streaming services, like one launching from Shout! Factory. Previously known for releasing DVDs of films and TV shows other studios didn't want to, Shout's new streaming service carries the same philosophy to the world of online TV. It's filled with classic shows and movies that are hard to find elsewhere. It's got more of an eye toward curation than building a platform. It's built off of others' software.

And it's completely free.

Building off of others

The first thing you'll notice when you boot up Shout! Factory TV (which you can as of Thursday, February 5) is that it's largely built off of Hulu's architecture. Indeed, most videos on the site can also be found on Hulu. The site also utilizes software from a company named Zype, which allows other brands to start their own streaming video platforms.

The advantage here is simple. Hulu has a long-standing player that most streaming fans are familiar with. It's easily embeddable on other sites, and its ad sales are a revenue generator. Rather than sinking a ton of money into building a player of its own, Shout can piggyback off of someone else's platform.

Shout and Hulu have long had deals to share ad revenue, Shout Factory vice president of digital Gene Pao told me. Plus, he said, Hulu is handling ad sales, based on the demographics each Shout program is expected to attract. Hulu doesn't sell ads by program but, rather, by prospective audience. It's able to charge more to advertisers because it can promise to hit ultra-specific demographics — since it knows nearly everything about you when you go to watch a video on its service.

Shout could easily seem like a pointless endeavor at first blush. Why start a streaming service if it's just offering stuff available on other sites? But think about this more, and it makes sense. Shout has never been known for software development. Instead, it's known for doing things like getting WKRP in Cincinnati on DVD with most of the original music intact, or releasing classic shows and movies that appeal to niche, rather than mass, audiences. Shout is not a company lots of people know about, but it has a hardcore fan base follows what it does very closely.

For another good example of this, consider DramaFever, the streaming service that airs foreign programming, primarily Korean dramas. It, too, is built off of Hulu's architecture. And it, too, primarily aims at an underserved niche in the market.

Shout Factory TV would be very happy to be as successful as DramaFever. And by focusing on classic movies and TV, it has a more easily exploitable market niche.

The fall and rise of classic TV

Indeed, classic TV is increasingly an underserved market. Cable channels ostensibly devoted to it, like TV Land, increasingly rely on shows that are barely a decade old or on original programming. There are a handful of smaller networks, like MeTV and RetroTV, which exist in the narrow gaps between broadcast TV and cable, often airing via local affiliates, like a broadcast network, but aimed at micro-audiences, like smaller cable channels.

And streaming services like Netflix or Amazon? Forget about it. While each programs a handful of classic shows (Netflix just added the first five seasons of M*A*S*H, for instance), both are far more focused on the TV of the present.

This makes sense. Despite seemingly infinite bandwidth, these services have only so much money to spend on licensing fees for programming. Spending money on present-day programming (or shows of the recent past) just makes sense, then, since it's more likely to attract an audience than something oddball. Indeed, Netflix's biggest shows are reportedly The Blacklist and Once Upon a Time.

But there's been good TV since the dawn of the medium, and that's where Shout thinks it has found a gap. "We're finding that the popular digital distributors out there are taking less library content, less classic content, less cult-y, under-the-radar content. And that's where we specialize," Shout co-founder Garson Foos told me. "We think we have an opportunity in the niches, for the rabid fans."

Indeed, the initial lineup of Shout Factory TV is wildly diverse. It features classic "robots talking back to the TV" series Mystery Science Theater 3000 right next to wholesome children's program Dennis the Menace. It's got classics that defined the medium like The Mary Tyler Moore Show right next to odd little cult shows like The Weird Al Show.

Click around a little more, and the service also seems to make some counterintuitive choices, like only putting up a season of some shows at a time. But that's very intentional, according to Pao. Indeed, older shows often had so many episodes in a season — sometimes well over 30 — that putting so many up at one time could overwhelm viewers. And by only putting up a season at a time, the service can create a sense of urgency to keep watching and keep visiting the site.

"People were actually watching more when they knew it was coming down at some point," Pao told me.

Will it work? It's impossible to know, but if it does, Foos has plans that go beyond the usual streaming fare. He wants to open up Shout! Factory TV to sketch comedy, to talk shows, maybe even to game shows. He wants to use it as a way to funnel great TV and film from the past to viewers of the present, in the format more and more consumers prefer.

And Shout! Factory TV is going to do this in the manner of a cable network, not a broadcast one. Let Netflix or Amazon be the firehoses of content. Shout is content to be a steady trickle that a small but devoted audience nevertheless laps up.

Update: Shout is also working with a company called Zype, in addition to Hulu. This has been added to the article.

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