Crackle, once an odd bird among the flock of startups in the emerging world of online video, finally seems to be flying in the right direction. Crackle’s timing couldn’t be better, as consumer frustration grows over cable and other pay-TV providers. Suddenly, more people are getting their TV-like entertainment experiences in new ways, and are expecting increasingly high-quality material when they go there.
Crackle started early in the last decade as a stand-alone company called Grouper. Sony bought Grouper for $65 million in 2006, and a year later, renamed and refocused it into something like what it what it is now, a free, ad-supported channel of what looks like traditional TV, though technically, it isn’t.
The original approach – featuring lots of not-very-distinguished action films and TV shows culled from the deep recesses of Sony’s library – has evolved in the years since. Now the company is, as CEO Eric Berger says, “both a studio and a network,” mixing library TV shows and films with original content and editorial material about that content from Sony’s huge TV production operations and other providers such as Lionsgate, Fox, MGM, Universal, Snag Films and Toei.
“Think of it as a network that’s not that dissimilar to an FX,” Berger said. “We layer original programming over library content.”
The programming, per its roots, has “a male sensibility, international in flavor,” said Berger. The site does do a couple of things differently from a traditional TV network, however. For one, it’s only available “over the top,” the buzzword du tech for video sources that are distributed through platforms such as the Web, mobile apps, and TV-side streaming devices such as videogame consoles, Roku and Apple TV.
And the shows themselves can be released in a variety of ways, in clumps for the binge watchers out there, or on a weekly schedule. They may be a standard 22 or44 minutes long, or just a 2-minute video snack, like their award-winning series from Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
Berger is discreet, to the point of vague, about the company’s financial picture, and it’s not broken out separately in Sony’s financial reporting. But he does say, “We’re very happy with the financials for us. We’re a meaningful part of Sony Pictures TV‘s business. TV is not going away, but OTT is a meaningful new part of that business.”
It may soon become even more meaningful. Months and months of executives’ hints at investor conferences and media reports say Sony is close to launching an Internet-based pay-TV service as an alternative to traditional cable TV.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Sony has finalized a deal to carry more than 20 of Viacom’s channels, including MTV and Nickelodeon, as one bulwark of the new service. Fox and Disney reportedly are also considering offering their channels. Such an online pay-TV service could provide yet another high-profile distribution option for Crackle, which already is available in 21 countries, including Australia and South America, on the web, through apps and with hundreds of devices.
Executives have said viewership these days is spread relatively evenly across users on PCs, smartphones or tablets and streaming-video devices such as Roku and Apple TV.
Its best-known program remains Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. When it launched in 2012, Comedians seemed to be just an entertaining little goof to pass the time after Seinfeld had cashed in big with his iconic 1990s sitcom. The premise is simple, and as literal as the show’s name: Seinfeld and another comedian take a ride in a classic car to get some java and jaw with each other.
But a funny thing happened on the way to pick up some joe: the show has become something of a critical darling. This weekend, it won a Streamy Award as best non-fiction show after nabbing a 2013 Primetime Emmy nomination for best short-form non-fiction programming. Other notable performers are making content for Crackle now too, and say they’re happy about the decision.
“When I first got offered to do this, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to be on the Internet?” said Jesse Bradford (Flags of Our Fathers, Bring It On), a star of Sequestered. “But I’m glad I did. It’s the interesting space right now.”
The show, a courtroom drama about a sequestered jury, also stars Summer Glau (Firefly, Terminator: The Chronicles of Sarah Connor) and Mr. All Media, Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement, Family Guy). The show also has some online roots: one of the show’s directors is Kevin Tancharoen, whose Mortal Kombat: Legacy 2 online series also won a Streamy Award this past weekend among a raft of nominations.
“I had to get over my own preconceived notion of what is going on in the world,” Bradford said. “TV is becoming movies, the Internet is becoming TV and film is becoming museum pieces that are hard to access.”
The show debuted half its episodes Aug. 5, with the other half coming in October. Because it’s the Internet, Bradford said, “the parameters are really loose. It’s not quite so paint-by-numbers.”
And he had another realization: Crackle’s production crew, “though they were a little young and a little green, had worked together a lot.” The result was the kind of near-telepathic cooperation and efficiency between crew members that Bradford said you might see on the set of a veteran director such as Clint Eastwood or Steven Spielberg, who have worked with many of the same behind-the-camera principals for years. That makes for great efficiency, though budgets still don’t leave a lot of room for dallying.
“What you get are these groups of people who know how to work together,” Bradford said. “How are we (shooting) 20 pages (of script) a day? That’s how.”
Crackle has other known quantities featured on its original shows: action series Cleaners, for instance, stars Missi Pyle, David Arquette and Gina Gershon. Crackle produced a first-ever “digital feature” last year, the actioner Extraction, that stars Danny Glover, Sean Astin, Vinnie Jones and Falk Hentschel.
After debuting Sequestered and the second season of Cleaners this summer, the company has more original series coming out this fall. One big venture is the game show spinoff Sports Jeopardy, hosted by the urbane sports broadcaster and syndicated radio host Dan Patrick. It debuts Sept. 24 with new episodes each Wednesday. Other plans include longer-form projects, including a Joe Dirt sequel, said Berger.
Here’s a teaser trailer featuring Patrick: