C.K. will likely make his money back given that he’s only just now started doing press for the show and can still sell the broadcast/streaming rights to a third party if he wants. But it’s an interesting and rare business misfire from the patron saint of “serious” comedy fans, one that has caused some chin-scratching from media watchers.
Much has been made of the show’s cost, and I think Matt Zoller Seitz’s comments are both representative and true, to a point. “It seems bizarre to me that people would consider $3 an episode exorbitant when a single drink in a bar can cost twice that,” the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com noted on Twitter, comparing an episode’s expense to the cost of a bag of chips and soda a couple of minutes later.
This is a good counter to anyone who might defend, say, illicitly pirating the show on the pretense that they can’t afford it. “Not wanting to pay for” something is not synonymous with “not being able to afford” something, and anytime someone says that they’re too poor to pay for HBO so it’s cool that they download “Game of Thrones,” you should give them the stink eye and keep tabs on how many Natty Bohs they drink at the next happy hour.
That being said, C.K.’s “Horace and Pete” experiment was designed in a way to discourage binge-viewing: By simply asking viewers to decide before each episode if they wanted to pay to keep going, he erected a steep barrier. Especially since it’s not the, ah, happiest program in the world, something akin to “Cheers” set in Purgatory. (*At least, that’s about what it feels like through the first two episodes; that’s how much I’ve watched thus far.) Imagine a Skinner Box—you know, the little experimental chamber where rats hit a button and get a reward—that fills you with existential angst every time you pull the lever. Would you pay $3 for the privilege?
In particular, would you pay $3 if you’re already paying the better part of $300 a month for other entertainment options? Part of Louis C.K.’s problem is that he’s at the bleeding edge of artist-driven televisual self-distribution. Many of us are already throwing down money on a cable subscription, a Netflix subscription, an Amazon Prime subscription, a Hulu subscription. And the broadcast networks are moving into their own streaming services; CBS hopes to entice you to subscribe to “CBS All Access” with a new Star Trek series. One imagines the other nets won’t be far behind.
As a result of the increased competition in the streaming space, service is becoming ever more fractured. A recent survey of Netflix’s movie library by All Flicks shows that the veteran streaming service has seen its movie catalogue shrink by almost a third over the last two-and-a-half years. “The statistics are simple and remarkable,” Stephen Lovely noted. “In January of 2014, Netflix offered its US-based users a selection of 6,494 movies and 1,609 TV shows, for a total of 8,103 titles. As of March 23, 2016, they offer just 4,335 movies and 1,197 TV shows—5,532 titles in total. That’s 2,571 fewer titles. In other words, Netflix’s catalog has shrunk 31.7% in less than two and a half years!”
This is one of the reasons why Netflix has made such a strong push into original programming, producing dramas and cartoons and comedies and Adam Sandler movies with reckless abandon: no need to pay license fees that get more expensive each time a round of bidding occurs. Or may not be available at all, once movie studios decide to create their own distribution channels.
Speaking solely for myself, this is something of a nightmare. When I was young and naïve, I had envisioned a sort of utopian future in which everything ever made was available for download or streaming via a central hub. Netflix’s Old Country Buffet-style format didn’t necessarily make much sense in such a system, but some sort of combo “free stream some, pay-per-view stream others”—kind of like Amazon Prime has now, but more expansive—would have.
The further into the future we get, however, the more ridiculous that dream feels. We’re not headed toward one centralized hub but dozens of channels streaming hundreds of movies and TV shows apiece, to say nothing of the numerous entertainers who will set up their own shingle in the hopes that their fans will back their work. We’ll all pay only for what we want! And it will cost us just as much, if not more, than it did to subscribe to a cable package that gave us 15 channels we wanted for every 200 we never bothered with.
The dream of the “unbundler,” that cord-cutting ne’er do well, is my nightmare. And I fear it’s just starting.