Comedy Central adopts growing trend with DRM-free stand-up

Continuing some themes from last week’s post on digital comic sales, another personal interest of mine recently saw a new DRM-free business model: comedy. In July, Comedy Central unveiled CC: Stand-Up Direct, a website on which it sells stand-up comedy specials for buyers to stream online or download.

The videos are $5 each and can be streamed and downloaded as many times as users want on computers, tablets, smartphones and video game consoles. Currently, 24 specials are available from such comedians as Demetri Martin, Kristen Schaal, Hannibal Buress, Paul F. Tompkins, Eugene Mirman, Bo Burnham, and more.

Hannibal Buress and Paul F. Tompkins are among the comedians featured on CC: Stand-Up Direct
Hannibal Buress’s “Animal Furnace” and Paul F. Tompkins’s “Laboring Under Delusions” are among the specials featured on CC: Stand-Up Direct.

DRM-free streams and downloads have become more popular among comedians in the last two years, after Louis C.K. made over $1 million in 12 days selling his 2011 special Live at the Beacon Theater directly through his website.

While the comedians do not get all the money from sales of the specials (Comedy Central takes a portion), the marketing capabilities of the network could be a worthwhile trade-off. As the AV Club pointed out, not every comedian has the exposure and funds to sell his or her specials independently. Partnering with Comedy Central would allow less famous comedians to reach wider audiences.

Erik Flannigan, EVP of multiplatform strategy and development for Comedy Central parent Viacom Entertainment Group, echoed this sentiment, saying, “As awesome as a direct-to-consumer transaction is for comedians, it also puts the entire marketing burden on them. The one piece of the equation that we can bring the loudest is the marketing. We can tie the exhibition of the special on-air to the transaction on this platform, using the television window to promote what you will put on CC Direct. Of course, we’re still counting on every comedian to activate their [sic] fanbase and tell them that their special is available.”

Louis C.K. grossed over $1 million in 12 days with direct sales of his special, "Live at the Beacon Theater."
Louis C.K. grossed over $1 million in 12 days with direct sales of his special, “Live at the Beacon Theater.”

Flannigan’s last point is crucial; Comedy Central’s TV promotion, as well as its active YouTube channel, can create strong hype for a comedy special. If viewers see a special they like on TV, or clips from the show online, they can own it before the TV hour even ends.

Of course, people could always record the specials, but CC: Stand-Up Direct has a few important advantages over DVR. First, its specials are not cut for time. For one-hour specials, most comedians record about one hour worth of material, but their specials are often aired in hour-long blocks including commercials, which brings the runtime of the comedy itself down to 40-45 minutes.

Second, the streams and downloads are portable. This might not be a big draw for some people (I’ve never watched a whole hour of television on a tablet), but others may like the convenience of being able to access the videos anywhere.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, the specials sold online are uncensored. This point might have the greatest appeal for comedy fans. While virtually any good comedy hour is still funny when bleep-filled, the uncensored versions are the way the comedians conceived the specials, and they generally flow better and do not feel disrupted.

Plus, with more and more people declining to subscribe to cable, streams and downloads may be their only legal option to watch these specials.

However, the extent to which comedians will benefit remains to be seen. Comedy Central has not disclosed the amount the comedians receive from each sale. If those royalties are too small, then comedians might be better off selling downloads on their own or pursuing other options.

Another uncertainty is how much the service will help up-and-coming comedians. So far, the comedians featured on the site seem to be at least fairly well known. I’m not extremely well versed in stand-up, and I’ve heard of nearly all of them and seen material from a little more than half. I wonder if Comedy Central featured established comedians to garner interest in the site at launch, or if fame will be a barrier of entry to CC: Stand-Up Direct.

Despite these concerns, Comedy Central has made a platform that fans will find interesting. I’m certainly willing to pay $5 for a full-length, profanity-laced version of a comedy show I can watch at my every whim.

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