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Heading Into Its Sophomore TV Season, Amazon Takes a Big Step Forward

Word leaked out yesterday that Amazon had picked up four of its five adult-geared pilots, with Variety reporting Transparent, The After, Mozart in the Jungle, and Bosch will all end up as series on Amazon Prime. Amazon isn’t yet commenting, but if true, it will mean the streaming service is dramatically increasing its roster of original series: Last year, the network ordered just two series, Alpha House and Betas. Both projects got decent reviews, but like the originals trotted out by Hulu Plus last year (The Awesomes, Quick Draw), neither generated the sort of hype and hoopla that rival Netflix drew for House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Things are already looking different for Amazon’s sophomore class. The pilot for Transparent proved to be transcendent for more than a few critics, while all of the other shows also had critical supporters, to one degree or another. TV industry trade The Hollywood Reporter declared that with its latest offerings, “It becomes clear that Amazon is a player.”

These hosannas don’t mean Amazon Prime is now suddenly a smashing success: The shows need to live up to the promise of their pilots, and more importantly, over the next year or two, Amazon will want to see evidence that more people are signing up for Prime (at $79 per year) in order to watch its shows. But it’s clear that Amazon’s expansion into the streaming business has taken a big step forward. Before news of the possible pickups broke, Vulture rang up Amazon Studios chief Roy Price to talk about just how much progress he thinks Prime has made, what he’s learned from the company’s first year in the TV production business, and how he plans to proceed next.

It’s possible Amazon could hand out different kinds of series orders to each of its pilots.
As noted, Amazon still isn’t confirming any orders. If it does end up picking up four out of five pilots to series, however, Price offered some insight in to how Amazon might make such a move work financially. “There are a lot of variables,” he told us. “You can do shows at different budget levels. You can do different numbers of episodes. You can move the timing around. There are a lot of … different ways you can serve the dish.” This is not unlike what linear networks already do: Some shows like ABC’s new drama Resurrection will air eight episodes a year, while a successful sitcom could run 24 originals each season. We spoke to Price before the Variety report hit, but even then it was clear he was mulling the idea of ordering more than two shows, as he did last pilot season. When we asked him specifically if ordering all five adult-geared pilots to series was an option, rather than dismiss the idea, he said, “We’ll have to see. There’s no question that the fairly widespread enthusiasm is going to make for some serious trade-offs and hard decisions.”

Like HBO and Netflix, Amazon is much more interested in how much people love its shows than in how many watch them.
While broadcast and even most cable networks are driven by viewership tallies, Price says he’s much more interested in getting Amazon Prime subscribers (and potential subscribers) emotionally invested in his shows. “People do have to have that extra level of passion for a show for it to be viable,” he says. “It’s important, because in an on-demand world, where there is no 8:30 show, there is no hammock — it’s all appointment viewing. That’s really what you have to be looking at. If you have broad support but it’s just not very deep, that can be not as good as having very deep support that is a little bit more narrow.” This doesn’t mean Amazon doesn’t want to see its shows viewed by decent-sized audiences: “You don’t want to take it to an extreme, where you have a show with one audience member who’s incredibly passionate about it,” he quips. “But it’s not the just the one who gets the most views. It’s got to wind up being somebody’s favorite show. And those are very different things.”

While the first two originals did well within the Amazon Prime universe, it’s too soon to draw many lessons from them.
Because Amazon, like Netflix, doesn’t release viewership data for its shows, there’s no way of knowing whether the audience of Alpha House and Betas was 2 million viewers or 2,000. But Price says the two shows “have been amongst the most popular series on Prime since their release. And that’s what we’re really paying attention to: On a relative basis, within the Prime universe, are they getting people’s attention, and are people interested?” Still, Price won’t yet say whether either show will return for a second season, though he indicated a formal decision would be revealed soon. He also isn’t willing to read too much into reaction to the shows, positive or negative. “It’s hard when you only have two shows. You don’t have a huge sample size to compare outcomes,” he explains.

We could see Amazon experiment with different release patterns, both for shows and episodes.
Last year, Amazon Prime debuted both its new shows within a week of each other. That could change this time around. “Maybe in the future we should space it out more,” Price says. “In general, we’re not religious about it. We’re open to trying different things and seeing what people prefer.” And that applies not to just when shows debut, but how many episodes drop at once. With Alpha House and Betas, new installments popped up weekly, but Price says he’s mulling doing what Netflix has done, and putting all episodes online at once.

But he sounds torn about that notion, because the season-dump strategy means viewers will have to wait months longer to see the next episode of Transparent, until producers wrap filming on every episodes. “You’re saying, ‘I’m not going to let you watch any of it until you can watch all of it’,” Price says. “And I don’t know.” Plus, Price has seen data which suggests the buzz half-life for shows is greatly reduced when episodes aren’t doled out every week. “There’s no question that when you release all at once, the social media conversation related to the show tends to decline more rapidly than with a normal show, a network show,” he says. “A network show over the course of 30 days will decline around one-third [from premiere night buzz]. And a binge show will decline about two-thirds.” And yet, Price doesn’t deny that “there’s also a certain degree of enthusiasm” with the way Netflix does things. “So maybe we should try it anyway,” he muses. “And you certainly could see that happen, because sometimes the only way to understand something is to try different approaches.”

Netflix may be the dominant brand in streaming content, but Amazon isn’t worried it’s too late to the game.
Even though Showtime has lots of hits, wins Emmys, and makes a ton of money, it’s hard to argue that HBO doesn’t have a stronger overall brand in terms of premium cable networks (unless, of course, you’re a Showtime exec, in which case you’d likely strongly disagree.) Much of HBO’s “dominance” of the quality space, be it real or perceived, stems from the fact that it was first to make a big splash in the original cable programming waters. And so it seems to be with Netflix: With last year’s success of House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and the revival of Arrested Development, it vaulted ahead of Crackle, Hulu, and, yes, Amazon in terms of buzz and attention. Netflix sometimes seems to be streaming content what Kleenex is to tissue — a brand which defines an entire product.

That would seem to make it harder for Amazon (and others) to grab attention from the 800-pound gorilla, but Price, perhaps not surprisingly, doesn’t seem overly concerned.

If anything, he dismisses “all those rivalries” between outlets as a relic of a passing age. “In a world where there’s only CBS, ABC, and NBC, then it really does makes sense to put up a grid on the wall, and compete in a zero-sum game,” he says. “But these days, there are many providers of programming, and a lot of them are awesome ... It’s become more like the book business. It’s not a useful way to spend your time, if you’re a particular publisher, to be angling against one of the many publishers down the street. The important thing is not whether you beat out that particular publisher, or in this case, the other network or streaming service. The only issue you can do something about is, ‘Are you doing a great job for your customers? Are you really putting together distinctive shows that are worth seeking out in an on-demand world, that are really appointment television?’”

Price doesn’t dismiss Netflix’s current advantages completely, however: “Brands are important. Awareness (of programming) is critical.” His answer to the prestige gap between Netflix and other streamers: “Coming up with interesting shows. You can’t generate the buzz artificially. The only way you can get it is to earn it, with terrific material. I tend to focus on that.” For as he surely recalls, even Netflix’s initial stab at first-run programming, Lillehammer, was far from a hit.

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by Amazon