Why Crackle Wants You (and the Industry) to See It as a Mainstream TV Network

It will be the first streaming service to present at the Upfronts

Headshot of Jason Lynch

Xbox, Kindle Fire, Roku, Smart TV—no matter what device you have, you can find Crackle on it. Each month, 18 million users in the U.S. access the Sony-owned, advertiser-supported streaming network to watch a selection of movies and TV shows, as well as a growing number of original series, including Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

But Crackle still has a bit of an identity crisis as it looks to make a name for itself among the likes of Netflix and Amazon. After an erroneous New York Post report in December indicated that Sony—at the time under siege from hackers and seeking alternative distribution for its controversial comedy The Interview—would be releasing the film for free on Crackle, most people said, "What's Crackle?" (In the end, Crackle landed rights to the film next year in the first ad-supported window.)

Crackle's general manager and evp Eric Berger, who's also general manager of digital for Sony Pictures Television, is trying to change that. He's taking big swings like commissioning Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser—the first digital sequel to a movie—and pushing original series like the drama Cleaners, starring David Arquette and Gina Gershon, and the thriller Chosen, starring Chad Michael Murray and Rose McGowan.

And in his loudest statement yet, he's moved Crackle out of the NewFronts, held primarily for digital enterprises, and into the upfronts, generally reserved for the major TV networks. On April 14, Crackle will become the first streaming network to present at the upfronts. On the eve of Crackle's first upfront, Berger talked about his bold move, what really happened with The Interview and meeting the challenge of raising Crackle's profile.

Adweek: What prompted Crackle to move from the NewFronts to the upfronts this year?

Eric Berger: We decided to move from the NewFronts to the upfronts this year because we want to send the message that we are a premium streaming TV network with a core focus on creating quality, longform original programming and delivering it over the top on every platform.

When Sony was trying to figure out its digital strategy for releasing The Interview last December, were you hoping Crackle would be in the mix?

There were a lot of conversations internally that are different than what people were talking about in the marketplace. And what you see playing out is Sony's strategy of taking it through traditional windows. So, theatrical to EST [early electronic sell-through] and VOD, and next logically would be subscription video on demand, and then you come down into ad-supported video on demand, where Crackle is. Crackle wasn't going to change its business model to become something else for one movie. We ended up with The Interview within the appropriate window.

Community is a Sony-owned show that was looking for a home after NBC canceled it. Was that a show you had pursued before it went to Yahoo Screen?

It's a great show. It didn't fit in our slate at the time. Everything that we've done on the scripted series side to date has not been comedy. They've all been action, drama and thrillers. Features are different—with Joe Dirt, obviously, but the other features are action, horror and zombie type of stuff that fares really well for us. 

A lot of streaming services are finding that a way to make a bigger splash is rescue a beloved-but-canceled show like Netflix did with Arrested Development. Community aside, is that a strategy you're open to?

I would never say no. So we're going to look at a lot of different things that we think fit with our audience. Like a lot of these guys, we look at the data of what people are looking at and viewing on our service in the U.S. and in other territories. It's got to feel right. In the case of Joe Dirt, we had a lot of data to show that when we put this movie onto the service, it overindexed a lot of other things in the category and that we felt very confident that when you make a new original that it was going to perform very well from a consumer point of view and an advertiser point of view. So using that data steers into those creative decisions.

You are one of the few streaming services to be available on every single platform: Apple TV, Xbox, Roku…

And not only Android and Apple, but Kindle and Nook. We really are everywhere.  There's nowhere we aren't. And that's true in every country where Crackle operates.

Yet it seems like large numbers of people still wonder, "Wait, what's Crackle?" You've made inroads with Seinfeld's show, but what are the challenges of raising your profile?

We invested a lot in content, both licensing and original, and putting all the pieces in place, and we've built our audiences. We've also built a lot of advertising. So all these pieces have been put in place but maybe we're not making as much noise from a marketing perspective to trump up the brand as much as some others are. I think with the slate that we have in front of us with the distribution in place, with the growth and revenue, you'll start to see more and more of Crackle in the marketplace in 2015.

What kind of new advertisers and partnerships have you brought in?

Brands like Best Buy, Google, BMW, Verizon, Buffalo Wild Wings and Geico.  It's a long list of blue chips and we look across all the major categories of financial services and auto and quick service, food and retail. We've fleshed out all of the major categories with blue chip advertisers in the last 12 to 18 months as we augmented. And we're selling not only Crackle, but the PlayStation platform. The big hook there is we think we're the leaders in ad-supported premium content in the living room on connected devices. It's been compelling for advertisers.

Crackle has been built on the idea of being free, but have you considered experimenting with a subscription model, even for just one show?

We are committed to free. We think it's a big part of our brand, and it's a business model that really works for us. We think it would be confusing to consumers if we introduced another model into the mix. So we're all in.

Netflix has said it wants to be everything to everyone at this point. What is Crackle's audience?

Our sweet spot is 18 to 34, but certainly 18 to 49, and it has a male sensibility—it skews more male in the demographics, but not to the exclusion of women. So action, drama, horror, sci-fi, thriller and comedy genres are the ones that really hit home for our audience.

What's on tap for next week's upfront?

This year we're going to show you how the Crackle TV experience rivals any cable television network. We're excited to share our vision for the future of ad-supported television and reveal our new original programming slate for 2015 and beyond.

Where do you want to take Crackle this year and the years to come?

You'll see the expansion of our original programming and how that all comes together with what we're doing currently. There's more international expansion on the horizon, and just continuing to grow our audience and the type of content that we put in front of that audience, both original and library.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.