Comcast's Watchable Debuts First Slate of Exclusive Series

Courtesy of Comcast

The digital video service will roll out projects from BuzzFeed, Refinery29, CollegeHumor and others.

Nearly a year after Comcast made a digital play with the launch of online video service Watchable, the media conglomerate is planning to release its first slate of exclusive digital series.

Watchable launched last September during a flurry of digital moves from big media companies, among them Verizon’s go90 app. But while Verizon has spent significantly to acquire exclusive content for the ad-supported go90, Comcast has taken a more measured approach. It first built up a library of as many as 400 shows licensed non-exclusively for Watchable from digital video producers including BuzzFeed, Redbull, Wired, The Young Turks.

Now Watchable is beginning to buy up exclusive content, and on Tuesday it will debut a handful of shows from Refinery29, Mitu and In the next few months it will premiere six additional series from producers that include BuzzFeed, CollegeHumor and Studio71.

Jamie Gillingham, vp strategic development at Comcast, says he expects Watchable to roll out as many as 10 exclusives by the end of the year. “We didn’t want to invest ahead of demand, and we wanted to learn about our audience and really be thoughtful about how we were spending our money on exclusive content,” he explains. "Some others have come out in the market with a fairly big splash. We waded in a little bit more slowly are getting progressively deeper as we move along. We think we're doing it in an economically rational way."

Most of Watchable's exclusives fall into unscripted or scripted, non-serialized formats. Refinery29’s Ballin on Budget, for example, stars comedian and rapper Awkwafina explaining how to live the high life in New York on a limited budget. How to Human from Seattle-based mixes the how-to format with comedy. Comcast’s Craig Parks, who oversees programming for Watchable, describes the content as "pushing the envelope," explaining that "in digital content you don’t have a lot of the rules that you have in television, and we wanted to lean into that."

Most of the Watchable Exclusives partners are companies that had already licensed videos to the service, which is available via app, web browser and Comcast’s X1 platform. Comcast approached those partners first when it decided to make the jump into buying exclusive content. Mitu, for example, began licensing shows on Watchable last year and then sold the service its first exclusive series. "They were really interested in reaching this young audience that was multicultural and led by Latinos," says Mitu president Beatriz Acevedo. Mitu's Cholos Try debuts Tuesday., which makes the popular 100 Years of... video series, was in talks with Watchable about licensing its videos to the service and instead began talking about a deeper partnership in which they would work on original projects together. Watchable ended up striking a deal for three of the five pitches that Cut submitted and also will soon license Cut's library of videos. “They were both really involved but at the same time they trusted us to tell the stories that we wanted to tell," says Cut creative director Mike Gaston of working with Comcast.

With Watchable, Comcast now joins a growing number of buyers starting to scoop up digital projects. Verizon’s go90 has been rapidly buying up digital series since last year. Fullscreen’s new subscription video app has acquired a number of original projects and YouTube has been working with homegrown stars to develop TV-length series for its Red subscription service.

But while Verizon has been paying competitive price for go90 projects and other outlets are said to be doing deals that approach basic cable budgets, Watchable executives acknowledge they aren’t investing heavily in their service just yet. “We're taking a fairly measured approach to the investment here," says Gillingham. "We're very happy with the approach, and we’re happy with the quantity and quality of the content that we're going to have this year and next year."

The flood of buyers into the digital space provides new outlets for online projects that once would have ended up being self-distributed via YouTube or other platforms. But it isn't yet clear whether these new services are taking off with the young, millennial viewers they hope to reach.

Comcast, which with Watchable is targeting millennials in the 24-35 age range, has yet to reveal how many people are watching the service each month. Instead, the company says that mobile traffic has been growing by 40 percent every month since January and that viewing sessions via the X1 service are averaging 30 minutes. "We're finding ways to program the content that taps into the lean-back experience that people are looking for when they’re tuning into television," says Gillingham, referring to Watchable’s preprogrammed video playlists.

He adds that 2016 has been "a year of learning" for Comcast, noting that they are "trying to test ourselves on our ability to market to different types of audiences on different platforms and build traffic and a user base outside of the set-top-box where we don’t have that kind of privileged relationship with audiences."