One of the burning questions surrounding the tumultuous cable TV industry is, “why would people pay for cable when they can watch TV for free?” For niche shows like Key & Peele, giving some content away for free might be part of the answer.
Key & Peele is a sketch comedy show entering its third season on Comedy Central. Comedy Central puts sketches from the show on YouTube to encourage viewers to watch it on TV.
Theoretically, sketch comedy is a perfect fit for YouTube promotion. While most TV clips are shown without the context of the full episode, sketches can be shown in their entirety. People might be more inclined to watch sketches again and again because watching one on YouTube is a complete experience; its enjoyment does not require any knowledge of the show. Thus, viewers would want to watch a show after enjoying a sketch online.
In practice, the YouTube strategy is working well for Key & Peele. The show’s premiere episode was Comedy Central’s highest-rated debut since 2009, with 2.1 million viewers. The show has maintained steady audience numbers since then, with most episodes having between 1 million and 2 million viewers. The highest-rated episode of its second season drew 1.42 million; not bad for a cable sketch comedy program.
Five days before the show’s season 3 premiere, Comedy Central released the first sketch of the new season: a 2013 edition of the popular season 2 sketch “East/West College Bowl.” The new video has already amassed over 4 million views.
The video begins with a short message from Comedy Central telling viewers to watch the show on TV if they like the YouTube video. After the sketch, the show’s stars, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, tell fans to watch the show on TV because the actors’ favorite segments are exclusive to the full episodes. A trailer for the new season follows.
While the success of this strategy remains to be seen, the idea is certainly sound. It gives people a good preview of the show with a complete sketch and a reason to watch the TV airings; if “East/West College Bowl 2” is not one of the best skits on the show, fans who love it could be enticed to see what is.
In addition to well-conceived promotional efforts, a show like Key & Peele could benefit from possible changes in cable TV subscriptions.
Pay TV subscriptions (cable, satellite and telco) appear to be stagnating more than dropping, so the platform may be hurting less than they often seem in the days of streaming. However, pay TV cannot hold a customer base forever when its prices are rising for many Americans.
In response to the controversy over expensive cable TV bundles, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act, which would require cable providers to offer channels “a-la carte” if they wanted to received regulatory benefits from the government. This payment model would allow people to buy only the TV channels they want and pass on those they do not.
Such a plan would work well for channels with niche audiences. Sketch comedy, like stand-up (another Comedy Central mainstay), primarily appeals to a relatively small but enthusiastic fanbase, save for the occasional mainstream hit. This niche appeal could make a channel like Comedy Central an attractive option for comedy fans wanting to subscribe to individual channels.
It is well within the realm of possibility that if a-la carte TV becomes a reality, YouTube will be a viable source for promoting such shows and the channels that make them. If people like a YouTube sketch, they will watch a show on TV. If they like a show on TV, they might buy the channel.
This thinking might seem overly utopian, but some number of TV viewers will always pay for it for convenience, access to local programming, desire for live coverage or other reasons. That number would increase if prices were more customer-friendly.
Season 3 of Key & Peele premieres tomorrow at 10:30 p.m., EST.