NBC SeeSo and the beginning of the end for traditional TV channels

At $4 per month with no commercials, NBC's streaming comedy service is a glimpse at the future of TV.

seeso

You know the cable TV bundle is crumbling when the big networks start swinging the sledgehammers.

NBC will soon begin doing its part with SeeSo, the comedy-focused streaming service it announced last week. When it launches in January, SeeSo will offer a mix of NBC broadcast shows such as Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, more than 20 original series (Community creator Dan Harmon, for instance, is on board for an “animated adventure”), and syndicated programs such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Kids in the Hall. NBC plans to charge $4 per month for the service, with no commercials. An invite-only beta arrives in December.

This is uncharted territory for both NBC and TV networks in general, and it's a sure sign that the TV landscape is changing. It’s also proof that the unbundling of cable TV is a good thing for consumers, no matter what the cable apologists tell you.

Defenders of cable TV like to argue that without bloated channel bundles, the cost of each channel will rise, and you won’t really end up saving much money. But this line of reasoning makes sense only if you’re trying to replace a lot of channels. The new reality is that people are happy with a small number of streaming services such as Netflix, and they are increasingly under-served by a huge package of traditional TV channels.

With SeeSo, NBC is acknowledging this reality in a way we’ve never seen before from the big networks. SeeSo isn’t just a mirror of NBC’s existing broadcast channel and programming. It’s an entirely new on-demand service aimed at a specific audience. That’s far more compelling than a streaming version of NBC proper, which would appeal to no one in particular. And at $4 per month, the message is that it’s just one facet of your overall TV viewing, rather than the centerpiece.

Monty Python's Flying Circus

SeeSo could introduce a whole new audience to the insanity of Monty Python's Flying Circus. 

SeeSo is a glimpse into a future where the big networks start slicing off their programming into highly-focused streaming services, all available a la carte. (As I’ve written before, streaming services are really just channels in disguise.) The average TV viewer might subscribe to a handful of these smaller, lower-priced channels, plus one or two “premium” services such as Netflix or HBO Now. Even if you don’t get as much content as you would with a cable TV bundle, you’ll still save money on a programming lineup that caters to your interests.

As long as we’re picking apart cable industry bogeymen, SeeSo could also disprove the tired notion that TV will get worse without channel bundles, as the lack of guaranteed carriage-fee revenue will discourage risky bets on bold new shows. This was already a bogus argument that ignored the rise of high-quality original shows on unbundled services such as HBO and Netflix. SeeSo’s promise of 20 original series just reaffirms that even under an a la carte model, networks will invest in new programming. If anything, those investments will help drive subscriptions in the first place.

Meanwhile, SeeSo advances the idea that most on-demand TV shouldn’t have advertisements. An entire generation, growing up on Netflix, now sees ad-free TV as the norm, and the TV industry as a whole is picking up on this trend, as seen by the ad-free version of Hulu that launched last month. By offering another ad-free option, NBC is helping to improve the TV viewing experience overall.

Ten years ago, a new channel like SeeSo might have just landed in your cable package at NBC’s behest, raising your bill regardless of whether you wanted it or not. But as the cable bundle falls apart, TV networks will actually have to compete for your time and money. They’ll do so with compelling packages of highly-focused programming at reasonable prices. SeeSo is just the start of this shift, showing exactly how things ought to work in the post-bundle era.

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