Sam Reich’s Dropout: Ethical Collaboration and Engaging Fandom Toward Niche Streaming Survival
Charlotte Howell / Boston University

Early during the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, a friend asked me if I wanted to join her virtual Dungeons & Dragons game. To make me feel comfortable joining a game with significant rules and guidelines that I had never played before, she sent me a link to a YouTube channel for Dimension 20, a popular actual-play comedy show from College Humor’s subscription-based streaming service, Dropout. Two seasons of the SVOD service’s landmark show were freely available to draw in new potential subscribers. It’s not a new concept, but it is indicative of CEO Sam Reich’s public approach to operations at Dropout: emphasizing collaboration both on-screen and with a devoted, niche fanbase. While media executives are often notable for their user- and talent-unfriendly decisions, Reich has been developing a unique media executive persona fitting for a niche streaming service based in the fundamental collaborative form of improv comedy.

In a recent interview on NPR’s It’s Been A Minute, Reich recalled a meeting with a network executive who claimed YouTube as the enemy, to which Reich thought, “If YouTube is the enemy, you will not win that war.” Reich became CEO when he gained the controlling stake in CH (College Humor) Media after the former parent company ceased financing it in early 2020, but he had been working for College Humor and Dropout since 2006. With minimal resources and a handful of employees left, Reich turned to a direct plea to fans of Dropout to stay subscribed in order to give him time to reorganize and move forward. His tenure as CEO started by engaging directly with fans and asking them to trust him. The new Dropout would focus on the handful of shows that had appealed most to subscribers: largely unscripted shows focusing on improv comedians reacting within structured formats.

Dropout website landing page
Image 1: Landing page for Dropout

Of course, just a few months later, in-person filming was no longer possible, and Reich had to pivot to virtual productions of Dimension 20, Game Changer (a game show where the contestants have to figure out the rules of the game as they play), Breaking News (improv comedians try to get through a fake newscast without laughing) and Um, Actually (a geeky trivia show). The formats of those shows, luckily, could bear the production change. Moreover, a tonal shift emerged, especially visible in the Reich-hosted Game Changer. Before the move to virtual in 2022, Reich had delighted in his two-season stint as antagonistic host. In one episode, he giggles his way through various ways of asking “Yes or no?” until the players realize the only rule of the game: contestant (and Dimension 20 creator) Brennan Lee Mulligan cannot win. In another, he goads the players into offering lower bids to complete embarrassing acts to win money until the players finally collectively bargain, concluding, “Congratulations, you’ve unionized!” But once virtual, the platform began more clearly orienting toward programming that was “feel-good,” or at least “having fun.” In the virtual Game Changer, for instance, multiple episodes are merely excuses to give the comedians prizes or bring on contestants’ heroes—Tony Hawk, Giancarlo Esposito, and Michael Winslow—to compete with them. As Reich maintained his antagonistic but joyful and supportive persona as host, his relationship with the Dropout core cast and creators became clearer. By the end of Game Changer’s season five finale, a four-part “Battle Royale” with multiple mini-games, comedian Jacob Wysocki teared up as he told Reich’s mother (who was being charmed as a part of the game) “Sam has paid my rent for months . . . No jokes. I struggle to be a professional, and your son has really helped me out. He’s given me comfortability and purpose.” While the speech may be a calculated part of the game, Reich was also moved by it, indicating a level of reciprocity that had become part of Reich’s executive role since 2020.

a man stands behind a rainbow podium
Image 2: Sam Reich on the set of Game Changer

In addition to hosting Game Changer and its spin-off Make Some Noise, Reich has participated in a murder-mystery season of Dimension 20 and multiple episodes of Breaking News, including two specifically meant to mock him. Staying active in the service’s shows is one of the ways that Reich constructs the idea that he is a streaming service CEO who is far from the norm: he dropped out of high school, didn’t go to business school or law school, nor did he make his money in other industries and buy a media company to diversify his holdings. He is, however, the son of the former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, so he may have had some clear models for ethical workplaces. In July 2023, Reich posted a thread on Twitter and Instagram about how Dropout production shut down in solidarity with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA Strikes, including a philosophy of ethical and worker-oriented media companies. This emphasis on what Reich calls being “pro-talent and pro-human” includes: compensating for auditions, profit sharing with all levels of employees, and non-exclusive talent contracts so, for example, Brennan Lee Mulligan can run a D&D campaign with Critical Role. In a recent promotional video for Dropout, Reich leads the viewers (addressed as fans) through the offices and sets, highlighting these ethics while also positioning the fans as central to Dropout.

two men have a discussion in a studio
Image 3: Sam Reich and Brennan Lee Mulligan talking about a joke Dropout T-shirt design in the 5th anniversary video

Reich is also an elder millennial who grew up alongside connected forms of fandom of the late Nineties and Aughts that built communities around cult television through message boards, careful integration with social media, and increasing access/visibility to creators. Although Dropout’s subscribers number in the hundreds of thousands, not millions, for the fewer than ten active shows on the service, those subcribers are devoted, and they show their devotion on social media and in Dropout Discord server. The Discord server is the hub of fan activity, with threads for live and after-the-fact discussions, places for non-Dropout related topics, as well as depositories for memes like out-of-context screengrabs of the shows. The Discord is moderated by a team of volunteers who are part of the community and assiduous adjudicators of the Discord’s rules: the foundational motto, “don’t be a dick,” expanded to what is called a “contract of care” for the community. The discussions on the Discord and the system of moderation feels reminiscent of the early-Aughts Television Without Pity message boards, if a bit more deliberately kind than that antecedent.

For years, the Dropout Discord also had an “Ask Sam” thread, where Sam Reich himself would drop in every so often and answer questions ranging from an update on his ill dog to news about forthcoming shows. The Ask Sam thread disappeared from the Dropout Discord in early February 2024, invisible while moderators work to clean it up for access. The thread itself has been discontinued because Sam is taking on more administrative work, according to one moderator. In the last year, Reich and his tenure as Dropout CEO has become the subject of articles in Variety, The Wrap, Polygon, NPR, and even on the Television Academy’s website; as he becomes more of the public face of the service, he is clearly stepping back from being as accessible a part of the fan community. But part of that public face is also about making sure he still shows care—and acknowledges the collaborative nature of a niche streamer with its devoted fanbase—even in announcements that emphasize his decisions as CEO, such as limiting subscription rate increases and even locking in subscription pricing for continual subscribers. Reich has also shared that the potential for devoted fan engagement is one of the five principles of content creation at Dropout. He is not a traditional CEO, nor is he a fanboy CEO, but he has developed a CEO persona that emphasizes collaboration with talent and deliberate engagement with fans.

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