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Amid streaming chaos, Dropout carves out its own niche

Sam Reich in the poster for <em>Game Changer, </em>a game show he hosts on the streaming platform Dropout.
Andrew Swainson
Sam Reich in the poster for Game Changer, a game show he hosts on the streaming platform Dropout.

There's been a lot of bad news for large media companies running streaming services lately. Disney, Netflix, and Warner Brothers are all struggling to make streaming pay. Meanwhile, a large reason for the strike that's paralyzing Hollywood is the way these streaming services take away the payment system writers and actors used to survive on. But amidst this chaos some smaller streaming platforms, like Dropout, are finding the space to thrive.

Sam Reich was hired to run the team creating YouTube videos for CollegeHumor in 2006, when he was just 22. Back then, he said, "there were a lot of departments marching to the tune of a lot of different drummers."

CollegeHumor may not have had a clear goal, but people liked what they were creating. Their YouTube channel reached almost 15 million subscribers, and they were good at getting content to go viral.

The problem, Reich said, is "it turns out that has limited monetary significance."

In the early Internet days, Reich said it was all about capturing the biggest audience. If you could get millions of people to look at and share something, the idea was that money would follow. And they knew what it took to get a lot of views.

"When you're playing the online game, and you're trying to make viral content," Reich said. "You're thinking about thinking about things like lowest common denominator audience, you're thinking about shock value, you're thinking about how to stand out in a sea of hundreds of thousands if not millions of other options."

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CollegeHumor had some successful comedy series like Adam Ruins Everything, but they weren't making enough money from online video to justify what they were putting into it. By 2018, they decided to take a new approach.

Reich and the CollegeHumor team switched from trying to be widely successful on other platforms to creating their own for a niche audience. They called it Dropout. Reich describes the platform in their first promotional video as "Like Netflix, but worse! And cheaper."

For $6 a month Dropout offers shows like Make Some Noise, Cartoon Hell, and Dungeons and Drag Queens – where drag queens play Dungeons and Dragons. In a landscape of failed streaming startups, there was a lot of skepticism in the beginning.

"We all thought, well, this feels like a good way to crash and burn," Reich said, "but on the other hand, a good way to spend some money doing some ambitious things before the house burns down."

But five years in Dropout is still around and growing steadily. Their approach is different from the old CollegeHumor. No more lowest common denominator audience.

"On subscription it's just an entirely different ball game where we can focus so much more on creating something that feels special to a small group of people," said Reich.

Glen Weldon, who hosts NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, said Dropout isn't trying to create shows to please everyone – its content is niche, and that's ok. The show's cast makes the content feel casual and personal to him.

"The reason you show up every week is to see them in this kind of unguarded mode trying to figure things out on the fly," Weldon says. "You are in the room with them, and they're inviting you into their world for just a hang."

Weldon also enjoys getting to see the same improv actors on multiple shows. If you like seeing one person on Um, Actually, where contestants have to correct slightly incorrect statements about books and movies, you'll likely see them on another Dropout show like Game Changer, where contestants have to figure out the rules to the game they're playing while they're playing it.

Sam Reich with contestants Brennan Lee Mulligan, Siobhan Thompson, Lou Wilson on <em>Game Changer</em>
Kevin Stiller / Dropout
Sam Reich with contestants Brennan Lee Mulligan, Siobhan Thompson, Lou Wilson on Game Changer

"You can just watch it without knowing who the hell anybody is and still enjoy it," said Weldon, "but if you know the personas of this stable of actors, you know that it is geared towards exacerbating some personality quirk of one of the contestants in a way that is so funny, and so satisfying."

Dropout has not shared their official subscriber count, but Reich says it's in the mid-hundreds of thousands. He's very aware that doesn't come close to the hundreds of millions of subscribers that large media companies have, but, to him, that's not necessarily a problem.

"If you look at our size relative to Netflix, it's laughable. But you look at a behemoth like Netflix and you go, 'well, even if we carve out the tiniest little sliver of that whale, we can live on the blubber for a long time.'"

It's blubber Reich said Dropout wants to share fairly with the people who make it. Though they're not required to by unions, he said Dropout is working to become one of the first streamers to pay residuals to their writers, actors, and crew members.

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Tilda Wilson