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‘Difficult People’: The Same, But Different: Production Considerations for Streaming Distribution

The switch in the show’s distribution venue from broadcast to OTT streaming hardly affected the show’s development and subsequent production processes

Last November, online streaming service Hulu announced a straight-to-series order for Difficult People. Picking up the half-hour comedy series from executive producers Amy Poehler (Parks & Recreation) and Dave Becky (Louie) wasn’t really a difficult decision for Hulu—a joint venture of NBCUniversal Television Group, Fox Broadcasting Company and Disney-ABC Television Group—as the project had previously been in development at NBCUniversal’s USA Network.

This original series marks the first collaboration between Hulu and Universal Cable Productions, a television production company within the NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment division of NBCUniversal, but the series’ development and production process has been straightforward. “Because UCP played a role in production, we approached this project in the same way we would approach any other network-oriented project,” says Ryan McCormick, producer of Difficult People.

Even the switch in the show’s distribution venue from broadcast to OTT streaming hardly affected the show’s development and subsequent production processes. The most significant difference that old-school producers might find in working with these new content providers is that it isn’t about “going to the tape,” or even needing to deliver it to the networks for broadcast.

Julie Klausner is creator, writer and executive producer of the Hulu original series Difficult People. Photo by Linda Kallerus.

“Really, it’s pretty much the same process for production. As far as editorial is concerned, it’s a bit more of a streamlined process for digital delivery, which is great,” McCormick says. “A lot of networks are going digital these days and eliminating tape deliveries altogether. It is a welcome change and we’re excited to be part of it.”

The ad-supported Hulu online video service launched in 2007 as a venture to bring network programming online, where it may be viewed on Internet-connected TVs, smartphones, game consoles, set-top boxes and other devices. Since then, the OTT distribution model has changed the way viewers enjoy video content. Online programming from Hulu as well as rivals Netflix and Amazon Instant Video can often be “binge-watched”—where an entire season is viewed at once, one episode after the other—as opposed to an episode a week over the course of a television season.

This new style of viewing programs has presented both opportunities and challenges for showrunners. McCormick notes that the production is still scheduled to shoot in the traditional way—depending, of course, on location availabilities, weather and actor commitments. But he adds, “The writing has to be a lot tighter. There is no room for continuity errors, especially weather. We had a lot of snow during this shoot and had to shoot around it on a daily basis. If someone is trying to binge five episodes at a time, they will certainly notice something like that.”

Photo by Ali Goldstein.

OTT delivery has ushered in one more change to the way viewers watch shows. “Content,” as online programming is often called, is “consumed” on “lean forward” devices such as tablets and smartphones, as opposed to the traditional “lean back” viewing experience of the living room, characterized by minimal participation in the entertainment activity on the part of the viewer. “Lean forward” devices encourage viewer participation and engagement via immersive rich media tied to the programming.

In the case of Difficult People, producers decided to consider it a “lean back” type program, though they would keep in mind that audiences may opt to view it in other ways. “We’re treating this series as if it were any other television series, and using the tools to create the best possible viewing experience on any device,” explains McCormick. “Whether it’s on your phone, laptop, iPad or your television, we’re making sure that everyone receives the best possible viewing experience.”

Difficult People revolves around Julie (Julie Klausner, @julieklausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner, @billyeichner), two best friends living in New York City whose behavior often lands them in awkward situations—the type of situations that are often shared on social media. McCormick says it is for that reason that using social media to help promote the show has been crucial. “Social media plays a huge role in every production these days. I feel like it actually makes or breaks many shows. I think marketing will play a big role in social media, getting the word out there to potential viewers.”

Gabourey Sidibe, at left, plays Denise, the owner of the café where Billy works as a waiter. Beside her is Cole Escola, who plays Matthew, Billy’s co-worker and nemesis. Photo by Ali Goldstein.

McCormick suggests that services such as Hulu are providing greater opportunities for viewers to connect with content that may not have otherwise found an audience. Just as cable networks took on what seemed like risky ventures with Mad Men and Breaking Bad—each of which proved to be smash hits on AMC—Difficult People could follow the success of such edgy online programming as Amazon’s Transparent or Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.

“It’s an amazing avenue for a new level of show to be seen. I think this will be the new platform for great original shows that you wouldn’t normally see on a traditional network or even a cable channel—and that’s why you are seeing major networks like NBC getting involved.”

Difficult People is set to debut on Hulu on August 5.   

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