Q&A: Crackle Head Of Programming Jeff Meier

Post by: Rick Ellis 07 October, 2021

Crackle is one of those advertiser-supported streamers that has never quite managed to find its niche. It launched as a video service called Grouper in 2006 and it was acquired by Sony Pictures two years later. The name was changed to Crackle and then Sony Crackle. But despite having access to some of Sony's catalog as well as spending money on an aggressive attempt at original content (it was the original home of Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee), the service never seemed to gather traction. Even though it reportedly has more than 40 million monthly users.

Sony sold off a majority interest to the entertainment company Chicken Soup For The Soul in 2019 and in February of this year, Sony veteran Jeff Meier was named head of programming for Crackle Plus, the Chicken Soup For The Soul portfolio of streaming networks including Crackle, Popcornflix and Truli. And since Meier has taken over, the content mix on Crackle has noticeably evolved. Particularly in the case of the genre of classic and/or obscure television. Which makes sense given the fact that when he was at Sony, Meier was general manager and SVP of programming for Sony's classic TV diginet getTV.

I recently spoke with Meier about Crackle's overall programming philosophy, but also we took a deep dive into the challenges of clearing older television shows for streaming. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity:

First of all, before we get to the Classic TV part of this discussion,  I want to talk about Crackle in general. When it comes to the programming philosophy, who do you see as the audience? And have you gotten to the point yet where you can look at a title and decide, "okay, this is something I think is a good fit for our audience. This is something that they're gonna engage with."

I see our audience as being anybody that wants free TV and wants free content. And that tends to fall under certain parameters. Ironically, I think that people looking for free TV are often people who watch a lot of TV. I think that it's a wide range of demographics. I think it's old and young. You know, there's cord nevers, but there's also a lot of cord cutters. It's multicultural, and racially diverse. It's men and women. We've chosen not really get into the kids world. There's just lots of regulations and nuances about that, it's a very specialized space. But everything else I'm kind of open to. What I'm looking to is to try and figure out where we can be different than others.

And moving down the path of classic TV as part of that, I think that not everybody else is focusing on that space. So I like to be able to zig where other people zag. But for a long time we've believed that we should have originals. I believe that Crackle was one of the first AVODs (advertising-supported video on demand) to have originals. And they've been doing it for 10 years, whether it was done by Sony or now is being done by Chicken Soup for the Soul. So we've always known the importance of originals. It's evolved over time, what kinds of ones work well. Recently, we've been having a lot of success with sports related originals, and sort of docuseries figures. We have a whole basketball themed tray coming in October, that is based around a Vince Carter documentary called Vince Carter: Legacy. And in the middle of the month, we've got a documentary called Green Wave, which is another inspirational basketball high school basketball documentary. So we've seen that approach works. We've seen that that content appealing to black audiences work. We noticed this first years ago, we used to get tons of numbers for Sanford And Son and 227 and classic oldies like that. And we've now seen that parlay into interest for fresher content as well.

I guess the other part of your question is do we look at stuff and say, we can see this would work with our audience? To me, it's straightforward looking at the numbers.  We see what has worked before, and we try and find all that stuff that's like it. We've always had a strong performance from action movies. So I continually look for new action movies. And we look at what we know about the shows that work well, and how they've generally appealed out to the market. And we can think through what other stuff appeals to that same audience.

Which gets me to Crackle's classic TV library.  When I talk to other streaming executives, the perception in the industry is that classic TV - particularly stuff which isn't well known - the perception is that there's not an audience for it. That not enough people engage with those programs so it's really not worth dealing with. Obviously, you have a different philosophy and I suspect part of that's because this is the type of stuff you're interested in. But can you just talk about, from a business standpoint, what makes those older TV programs a viable thing for Crackle?

Well, I look at classic TV this way. Most of this television aired back on the major networks when there are only three networks and programs were getting cancelled when they had a 20 share. And so those are big numbers of people. These are shows that were getting on the cover of TV Guide, and lots of people were watching, Compared to what constitutes a hit today, I'm pretty sure more people probably watched Tabitha at the time, then watched a typical episode of Girls. But that really doesn't get reported. Because everything's about the numbers and the relative success today versus other things today. I do think there's a lot of collective memory bank for most of these shows.

Second, I think heavy TV watchers want to watch things that feel like the kind of stuff they used to love, But they don't remember it because it hasn't been repeated 20,000 times. It is sort of watching something fresh, but in an old medium. And I think that's sort of a fun way to analyze it.

The third thing that I try and do with the classic TV to connect the audience with a lot of these shows by having a connection to something broader. So when we have a show like Muddling Through, that was the show that Jennifer Aniston was in before Friends. And if Muddling Through had gotten renewed, she wouldn't have been able to do Friends. So I try and find a tie to stars, events, producers that are still relevant today in some way. It's not just for the people that are remembering the show for the first time. There's some curiosity triggered for somebody to go back and say, "Hey, what did Halle Berry look like back then?" We just launched Living Dolls and it's Halle Berry and Leah Remini in a sitcom. And it's interesting to then see them in that context, if you didn't see it in the first place. So those are some of the things that I think connect people to it. Otherwise, what I like about those shows is that it helps us stand out in some way. Everybody else is competing with the same kinds of things. And this helps us differentiate a little and then create a little bit of buzz.

I wanted to talk a bit more specifically about programming. And one question I had was the philosophy of cycling shows on and off on a fairly short basis. Is that a decision driven by licensing or is it more of a programming decision?

It's not so much a philosophy as it's figuring out how to make the right deals with our partners. And a lot of them want to cycle shows off. And part of the way that we get these shows is that it's serving as an experiment ground for them as well. There's always a changing marketplace, they may be looking for other opportunities. Maybe they're bringing content to us and then they want to see how it does. In many ways, I feel like Crackle is almost like a little bit of a farm system. They see how well it does with us, and then they're like,  "gee, maybe we can go sell this to Netflix for a lot." So if it was up to me, I'd have as much stuff on for as long as I could. There's no reason to take it away. But sometimes just the necessity of the deal requires that we cycle in and out.

I would assume the licensing issue is also why sometimes there will be shows where Crackle just has four episodes out of a 17-episode season or something similar?

Most of those situations have to do with music clearance and materials. So for example, there was one show the other day that we were looking at getting a couple more episodes, but they had never been transferred off of film. And the process of transferring off of film is going to cost so many thousands of dollars, that it was just not going to be financially feasible to do it for that show.

But most of it tends to be music clearance and a lot of the situations that you've seen so far because frankly, you've caught on and reported on some of this before I've really even started messaging it out or marketing it yet. Some of the time we just don't have everything in yet. Like It's Your Move, for example. I know there's only four episodes up right now. We're supposed to get to the place where we eventually have ten. I think it had 16 or 17 overall, but the other seven are not cleared. But we just haven't processed the other six yet. So then it becomes a question of, do you hold it till you get all of them? Or do you at least get people in the door with the ones you've got so far? And we've been trying to get it on the air.

My viewpoint is with a lot of these old shows, even if you can get like a six-pack of them on right now, for a fan who has a memory of that show that's at least enough to retrigger it. Even if we can't deliver them the actual complete series. It's frustrating with music clearance. Maybe someday it'll work its way through and there'll be a template which allows a lot of the older TV content to be seen. But right now,  it's literally a song by song renewal process. 

And that's also how things end up getting replaced. But replacing the music is expensive, too. Or at least, relatively more expensive than doing nothing. And I don't think very many people like having replaced music. So it becomes  a real conundrum. I hope that it works its way out at some point.

It's Your Move is an interesting example, because it's not a show you would think of as having music clearance issues. And it's a really complex issue. I was speaking with someone at Warner Brothers who told me that the reason why a lot of the classic 1960s Warner Brothers TV shows aren't streaming is because back then someone at the studio decided to save money by using library music in the episodes instead of commissioning original music. And now they can't get the library music cleared. So to stream the episodes, you would have to replace the music. And that is just a crazy level of expense. Apparently the only reason why Route 66 is available is because at some point someone paid to get it done for a DVD release.

Exactly, it's weirdly complicated. I mean, it was just two or three years ago that they finally declared that "Happy Birthday" was in the public domain. And prior to that, I was never allowed to use episodes where characters were singing "Happy Birthday," because they had to go clear it. It's small things like that, that you don't think of. There's a there's a movie I ran across, maybe two or three years ago, the only thing keeping it from being seen was that one of the characters did not perform a song. They quoted a Rolling Stone song, something like "as Mick Jagger always said, you know, you can't always get what you want." Well, that is now keeping the movie from being seen. Because they have to come up with a price and go back and clear that. Now they could probably just edit that scene out. But what I've learned with a lot of these companies is that everybody is pressed for time, everybody is slightly understaffed. And little things like that, it puts something on a pile of projects that need to be addressed. As soon as it has that check mark on it, then it becomes a return on investment issue. "Do we really have the time to figure this out, to investigate it, to clear it, to edit it, to do all this stuff? Are we going to make the money back? Are we not going to make the money back? And things get sidelined for decades, sometimes just based on too many uncleared songs.

Given all of that, do you have some shows that you'd like to get cleared or just haven't been able to get worked out yet?

I don't have any dream shows, so to speak. I think every studio has a bunch of these in the library. And I think there's a lot of worthwhile content to be found. And I've tried to adopt the stance of "I will figure out how to find the value in the stuff that is available," rather than worrying about the stuff that isn't. From my own personal childhood. would I like to see the old Donny and Marie reruns or something like that? Yeah, sure. But that's an immense amount of music to clear. So I just roll with it and try and create value out of the ones that I can get.

In the mid-90s, the studios switched from using instrumental music as the musical touchpoints, to using contemporary hits as music drops. And it seems like that really screwed up the getting a lot of those 1990s and later shows on streaming. And it sucks, because there's now this entire generation of TV that is just apparently too expensive or complicated to get cleared.

Just from my Sony experiences, that really accelerated after shows like Dawson's Creek and Party of Five embraced it. And shows from that era are hard to hard to get, because it's just got too much music in it. And I think now the studios have finally learned that it makes sense to just clear everything. Like movies do. We don't have this problem in many feature films, because they clear them in perpetuity across all media when they first make it. It goes back to the same things they were dealing with on I Love Lucy. Which is that nobody thought there was going to be a value in downstream. Desi & Lucy paid for their show to be on film, and then they got to own the negatives because nobody wanted them. That's the worst deal CBS ever made.

The same thing happened with music clearance. They sort of say, "well, gee, we'll just clear it for these two runs. Because we don't know whether the show will be a hit." And since they only cleared for the two runs, when it does end up being 20 episodes or 15 episodes, then it becomes a hurdle to them to try and sell it again. I'm trying to prove out the value of being able to see these shows again. We've been successful with that at both get TV and now at Crackle.

There's this old Western series called The Outcasts, which lasted one season. And I find it to be very historically significant because it looks to me to be maybe the only television show from the Western era that was designed to have both a black and a white costar. I think there were characters in other westerns, but not as the lead from the very beginning of the show. And so I found it to be a very historically significant series even though it lasted only one season. But it's really solid, you know, a lot of these things were weren't canceled because of lack of quality. They were just in tough time periods. And we've put that on and had great success with it. And so even though it's only 26 episodes, it's it's doing very, very well. I think that's the biggest kick you can have as a programming executive. To take something that was unexpected, and have it turn into a success. 

So given that experience, are there some ways in the future where you can curate that experience for customers? A way to let them know, "this is why you should watch this show. It's important for this reason." Because the nature of the streaming experience is that most people go in and randomly click around looking for something that sounds interesting.

I have been contemplating these sorts of issues. When you look at your TV screen, there's not that much room for text. So I think that's part of what has to happen is in the marketing aspect. Either in social media talking to people like you and through our email newsletters that all of our viewers can register and sign up to receive. And when they sign up, we'll send them a weekly newsletter that tells them, what's coming out and what's important to know about it. We have a little blurb that we put on every piece of content called "Why It Crackles." It's not a long explanation, but it's sort of intended to be bit of a short tip, the reason why the show is important. You can't always encapsulate everything that's important about a show in that statement. But but it's a start. It's the goal. I wish I could sit there and explain to everybody why they should watch every show. But we have to figure out the ways to do that outside of just cluttering up the screen with a a five paragraph essay. Although I would be happy to write that.

One of the things that I've written a lot about is that my dream is to take the approach of Turner Classic Movies, but for classic TV people.  TCM does such a great job of curating their stuff, telling viewers this is why it matters.. Granted, you can get away with things in linear TV that you can't on streaming. And the closer we can get to that, the better. Most people don't have a sense of why some obscure show might matter. And they really shouldn't. Most people aren't going to be obsessed with TV at the level that you and I are, but as you said previously, there are a lot of worthwhile things that they should watch if if they only knew why.

We've thought about figuring out ways to express that and I don't think we're there yet. In the old days of Crackle, they even had a show for a while that was a five-minute reap of all the new stuff. We're always assessing and looking at ideas to see if it makes sense. Yeah, I agree, it'll be great to be able to do that with greater context.

My goal, both with classic TV - but also with other categories of programming -  is to build specific communities that that are maybe underserved elsewhere. I think classic movies is interesting,. We've just launched a faith-based tray. And they're not necessarily all connected to each other. I'm not expecting that the faith-based viewers and the classic TV viewers will necessarily overlap. They may be the same, they may be different. But I'm trying to build these sorts of in depth communities. All of whom I think will maybe engage with some of the Crackle originals and with some of the bigger titles. Everybody's got that moment in their life when they want to see a big blockbuster movie and we're hopefully going to have some of those for them when they want to see them. But also, we'll keep populating all those other other sections with new content. And if it's content that people feel passionate about,  they can share that with their friends. And hopefully build some online chatter about it all and that's what gets us in the mix.





Last modified on Thursday, 07 October 2021 17:57