2015 seems like a rather late date to be launching a new streaming service for TV shows and movies. But the moment you begin skimming Shout Factory TV, it’s obvious that its aspirations don’t include demolishing Netflix or Hulu.
The free, ad-supported service is full of familiar faces, but most of them are starring in material produced ages ago: people like Bob Newhart (both The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart), Abbott and Costello (The Colgate Comedy Hour), and Weird Al Yankovic (1997’s Weird Al Show). On Shout Factory TV, old episodes of Mystery Science 3000 aren’t filler; they’re more like a raison d’être,.
Shout Factory isn’t going to acquire the rights to Avengers: Age of Ultron, at least in the next decade or two. It won’t be ploughing money into signing up Oscar winners to star in original programming. But its unabashed celebration of the nooks and crannies of our pop-culture past is what makes the service intriguing. It’s launching today.
Shout Factory, which is based in Santa Monica, California, has been in business since 2003, but its founders’ roots as curators of our entertainment heritage go back a lot further than that. They were previously principals at Rhino, which began rescuing music back in the vinyl era and was eventually acquired by Warner Music. Today, Shout Factory releases both DVDs and CDs, still focusing on back catalogs and specialty material which looks like small potatoes to enormous media companies.
Even as the optical-media business has slumped, the company has done well by catering to superfans. A typical example: Its 2014 release of the cult classic WKRP in Cincinnati. A few years earlier, Fox had released the first season of the show in butchered form, with new stock music replacing many of the famous songs which the sitcom had used. Then it lost interest. Shout Factory’s box set includes all four seasons, with more than 90 percent of the original music restored. WKRP lovers ate it up.
Shout Factory President Garson Foos says that the company doesn’t see its physical-disc business dying any time soon, but it’s been working on formulating a digital strategy. Until now, the company’s online efforts have been largely invisible, as majoys players such as Netflix and Amazon distributed programming whose rights were controlled by Shout Factory.
“At this point there’s a real opportunity to do it direct to consumer, and create something with a unique personality and unique programing sensibility,” Foos says. “There’s a real hole in digital markets for library content and niche content.”
At launch, the service is available in a browser-based version for PCs and mobile devices, and as a Roku channel. (iOS and Android apps are on their way, as are versions for devices such as Xbox and Chromecast.) On desktop browsers, the company is partnering with Hulu, which uses a white-label version of its platform to play video and monetize it with advertising; Zype and AdRise handle similar responsibilities on mobile devices and Roku, respectively.
By relying on partners, Shout Factory has been able to focus on content deals without having to build technical underpinnings of its own. And doing those deals is indeed a full-time job.
“It’s a real mixed bag,” says Foos of content owners’ willingness to license older material which will never be a gold mine but still has a constituency. “We start out with the rights to a good amount of content, but some of the more popular content we have is up on Netflix or somewhere else in an exclusive deal.”
At the moment, he says, the service is a little more dependent on art films such as Another Country (1984) than he’d like it to be in the long run. (Horror movies like The House That Screamed, hosted by Elvira, are more its style.) Over time, Foos says, “you’re going to see a steady stream of additional programming coming up.”
Oh, and there will be some original shows, too–stuff which is in tune with the service’s quirky character. Last year, for instance, Shout Factory webcast almost five hours of live coverage of Power Morphicon, a Las Vegas convention for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers enthusiasts. House of Cards it isn’t–and that’s sort of the idea.