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 LouisCK.net 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.