The Show That Left Louis C.K. With Millions in Debt

The comedian admitted his web series Horace and Pete hasn’t been profitable yet—suggesting the indie-TV model is still a long way from changing the industry.

Louis C.K.’s independent television show Horace and Pete is about as simple a production as is imaginable: It involves two sets (a bar and the apartment upstairs), mostly stationary camera-work, and an ensemble of famous actors who are happy to work cheaply. It nevertheless costs $500,000 per episode to make—very little for television, but when you’re filming 10 episodes, that adds up. C.K. put $2 million of his own money into the show, which has won him rave reviews, and self-producing it for his website certainly offered him total creative freedom. But as the TV-funding model shifts and expands in the online TV era, is it possible his experiment was too much, too soon?

C.K. could have made Horace and Pete for FX, the network that houses his now-dormant comedy Louie, but he would likely have had to moderate the content of his show, which features a lot of explicit language and episodes that run anywhere from 40 to 75 minutes. Instead, as he told Howard Stern, he decided to fund it himself and sell it online, hoping the sales of the first four episodes would recoup his costs and fund the rest of the season. According to C.K., that hasn’t happened—he’s “millions of dollars in debt,” he said, with a laugh. That doesn’t mean Horace and Pete wasn’t worth the gamble, but it did follow an expensive model very few artists can imitate—suggesting the broader TV industry isn’t going to be changing any time soon.

The classic independent film-financing model sees producers scraping together money from a motley crew of studios and financiers, often from all over the world, to make a movie and then try to recoup costs by selling the distribution rights and splitting the box office receipts. “Indie TV” couldn’t exist in any form before the Internet because there was simply no way to get it on the air without teaming up with a network. Now, the humble web series is a recognized art form, and the best of them—like Broad City, or Vimeo’s High Maintenance—end up with real TV deals. But Horace and Pete was different: C.K. wasn’t angling for network attention, but striking out to make something not beholden to studio notes, that didn’t require act breaks for commercials, and that could generate revenue entirely from word of mouth.

His appearance on Stern predictably engendered a lot of debate over whether Horace and Pete was worth the trouble. Jason Zinoman of The New York Times wrote a well-reasoned critical piece saying that like many works of art, Horace and Pete perhaps could have benefited from studio interference to smooth out its rougher edges. Dan D’Addario of Time said that C.K.’s decision to trust his fanbase to shell out $31 total for the 100 episodes he produced (they cost between $2 and $5 per episode) was risky considering how the current TV landscape is already flooded with content. The easy access, advertising strength, and brand recognition offered by a network (and its many online and on-demand appendages) can spur people to check out a new show. Paying $5 via Paypal to is an extra hurdle many won’t bother to clear.

Strangely, C.K.’s troubles echo those of one of the world’s biggest companies—Amazon, which benefits from some 60 million Prime subscribers but has struggled to attract viewers to its original programming (even the Emmy-winning hit Transparent remains relatively niche). A dodgy online interface, a homepage that buries original TV content, and unavailability on streaming devices like Apple TV haven’t helped. Horace and Pete had the same problems, just on a much smaller scale. The comedian has a huge subscriber base in the form of legions of devoted fans who have bought his stand-up specials through his website for years. But you can only watch Horace and Pete through your computer, which cut off a lot of viewers who might otherwise be interested—especially older viewers who might have found the stagey, throwback feel of the show appealing.

There’s still time for Horace and Pete to make money. C.K. sparked a whole new publicity campaign simply by addressing his debt on Stern, and he told the radio host that funding continues to come in for the show as he mounts an Emmy campaign for it. “I believe that ... by the summer, the show will have paid itself off,” he said, also predicting that eventually he’d sell it to “another outlet,” even though most TV studios wouldn’t be able to air the show because of its language. If C.K. does end up selling the show, then he’ll have followed the path of most self-funded web series, which serve more as auditions for bigger studios than anything else.

Broad City, a web series created by the comedians Abbi Jacobson and Illana Glazer and uploaded to YouTube, caught Amy Poehler’s eye in 2010—she shepherded it to Comedy Central. The Chris Gethard Show was an online talk show self-funded by its titular star (which took advantage of New York City’s public access broadcasting network to look relatively professional)—it was acquired by Zach Galifianakis, Will Ferrell, and Adam McKay, who brought it to Fusion. Drunk History has become an Emmy-nominated hit—it started out as an irreverent online recap of historical events delivered by sloshed comedians in their homes.

Horace and Pete was something grander, down to its surprise announcement: C.K. dropped an entirely new show on unprepared audiences with a brusque email saying only “Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5. Go here to watch it. We hope you like it. Regards, Louis.” And there’s no doubt it worked on some level: Horace and Pete is without a doubt the most-discussed web series ever released, commanding the kind of attention only an already established artist can. But even that lofty status hasn’t yet amounted to a profit. C.K. got to make exactly the show he wanted, and that may have been worth it, but it’s still a luxury few artists can afford.