IMDb TV Wants to Win the Free Streaming Wars

IMDBb TV’s Alex Rider. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios/Nick Wall/Eleventh Hour Films/So

The hottest front in the streaming wars right now is the battle for free TV. Platforms such as Roku Channel, Pluto, and Tubi are scrambling to give subscription-wary consumers zero-cost alternatives, betting they’ll be willing to put up with a few minutes of ads in exchange for the sort of content you’d traditionally find on broadcast TV or basic cable. And one of the biggest players in the space is IMDb TV, which suffers from an unfortunate six-syllable mouthful of a name but also boasts one very important asset: It’s owned by Amazon.

While the global e-commerce giant already has a firm footing in the subscription business via Prime Video, IMDb TV represents an opportunity for the company to grow its already-significant advertising revenues and dominate the rapidly growing category of free, ad-supported TV — or FAST, for short. Industry folks I’ve talked to think IMDb TV has a leg up in the FAST fight because of the deep pockets of Amazon. Its ability (and willingness) to commit significant resources to original content has become clear in recent months as IMDb TV has announced one big project after the next: a new court show from Judge Judy Sheindlin; spinoffs of Bosch and Leverage; a new comedy from My Name is Earl creator Greg Garcia; a half-hour drama from Dick Wolf.

To find out more about exactly what IMDb TV is up to, I recently chatted by telephone with Lauren Anderson and Ryan Pirozzi, who serve as co-heads of content and programming for the streamer. We talked about the difference between Prime Video and IMDb TV, what types of programs are in the pipeline, and the most important question of all: Is Alexa getting her own TV show?

You talk about IMDb TV as a “modern network.” What does that mean?  

Ryan Pirozzi: It’s premium [shows] across a wide variety of genres. It’s really about having something for everyone. We don’t just look at other competitors in the AVOD space. We look at competing for customers’ interest and time, so we have to stand out. And one of the ways we stand out is an original slate of programming that’s also free, which is unique.

Does having advertising change the kind of shows you can do? Are you going for basic cable-type content? 

Lauren Anderson:  So it’s funny, one of the things early on, when we were sort of going around and talking to creators and talking to the town about content, I actually spent time reminding people that shows like Mad Men and Atlanta and The Shield — all of those shows are shows that were launched inside of ad-supported networks and channels. So for us, being in an ad-supported environment does not at all change the ambition of what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t change the creativity of what we’re trying to do. It doesn’t change the talent we want to work with. So for us, no, I can say very, very directly, no. We embrace it. I come from network television. Those are some of the best shows that have been made. And those are the shows that audiences continue to love.

What’s the difference between Prime Video and IMDb TV? I know you’re free. But a lot of people already think of Prime Video as free, since it’s included with the overall Prime two-day shipping plan. Why does there need to be an IMDb TV when Prime Video already has 200 million subscribers?  

Ryan Pirozzi: I think the best way to say it is, Amazon Studios is programming two services now. A subscription service in Prime Video, and an ad-supported service in IMDb TV. And what that allows us to do is open up the aperture of people we reach. I like to talk about these two big groups of customers. We’re delighting Prime members who want more selection and are willing to watch ads to get it. And then we’re also delighting people that don’t want to be behind the paywall for one reason or another. I do think that these services should be complementary to one another. They will not feel the same.

In terms of overall content, how many shows do you want to make every year? What’s the goal?

Lauren Anderson and Ryan Pirozzi. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Lauren Anderson: A lot. [Laughter.] I don’t want to give an answer that is sort of just randomly picking a number. But we want to be a top-of-mind destination service … so that’s both about the quality of content we’re making, and then the quantity that we’re making. We launched our first original in November. We’ve launched two more this year. We are planning to at least quadruple that amount as we continue to move through the year, and then are going to use the next, I’d say, 18 months or so to figure out what that right number is.

Ryan Pirozzi: We want to do a lot, to Lauren’s point. But we also pride ourselves on being curated. This is not about doing everything.

So maybe two years from now, we’re talking about dozens of IMDb TV shows?

Lauren Anderson: I feel comfortable saying yes. Definitively. Yes, full stop.

Would you ever do a daytime-style soap opera or a game show or a talk show? Are those genres that you’ve talked about?

Ryan Pirozzi: Absolutely. We’ve talked about this concept of being daypart agnostic, recognizing that people love the kind of shows you can typically find on daytime TV, but they might watch it at any time and really enjoy those genres on demand.

What about multi-cam comedies with studio audiences? 

Ryan Pirozzi: I would say we’re 100 percent open to it. I mean, one of the things we talk a lot about on the team is, with cord-cutters and cord-nevers flocking to streaming, it’s not because of the rejection of the content you might find on broadcast and basic cable. It’s more of an embracing of the convenience and ubiquitous access of streaming. We definitely think there’s an opportunity for those kinds of programs you might have only found on broadcast and basic cable. We think there’s a home for them in streaming.

You’ve announced a bunch of projects in development, but how much of that is going to get made into a series? Or will you follow the old network model and make pilots and see what sticks?

Lauren Anderson: I will say that the vast majority, if not everything that we’ve picked up, has been straight to series, and that is our prevailing model. It’s not so much that we won’t ever do pilots. We do have some things that we’re thinking about as pilots. But I think for us, it really is about betting on a creator and then making a great show together. Also, the pilot doesn’t always tell you all that you need to know about a show. Being able to say we believe in this concept and this world and this vision and in these creators, to us means let’s do more series, as opposed to pilots. Not every single thing is going to get picked up, but we do feel that if we’re putting it into development, we’re putting it into development because we want to make your show, period.

IMDb TV so far has mostly been defined by series which have already aired on other networks. Do you still want to keep acquiring more “old” shows as you build your library of originals?

Lauren Anderson:  Licensing is always going to be a huge part of what we do. We don’t ever think that we’re going to move away from that. Originals, in a lot of ways, are the centerpiece of our business. But licensed content is never going anywhere. I just want to make sure I say that very clearly: It’s never going anywhere.

What kinds of acquired shows do you want to have on the platform? And do you look at how those shows perform to inform what kinds of originals you make? Netflix famously said it green-lit House of Cards because its members really liked Kevin Spacey movies.

Lauren Anderson: We are doing a little bit of everything. So it is those sort of classic shows, the Norman Lear shows, Bewitched, etcetera. It’s also the modern classics, like Mad Men and Lost, and even shows that are currently on, or just recently gone. We had Schitt’s Creek during its final two years. We have Chicago Fire right now. It’s a big part of what we’re going to continue to do.

And then in terms of the signals that we take from those shows, it’s an interesting thing, because you can do it two different ways. You can sort of watch a show do well and say, “Hey, let’s reimagine this,” which is certainly something that you see happen. With Leverage: Redemption, there is some of that. But for us, it’s just about what we think people are going to enjoy watching, and then maybe taking learnings from that. Columbo and Murder, She Wrote and those sorts of classic shows, that genre is just never going out of style. So maybe that means looking to reinvent those exact series, or maybe that just means taking the spirit and the flavor of those series and creating something fresh and new.

Okay, so this is probably a dumb question, but: Has anyone come to you with a pitch for a series based on Alexa? Has that been a thing?  

Lauren Anderson: So no one has fully pitched something that revolves around Alexa at the center of it. But we absolutely have those pitches where people have talked about how Amazon devices or other properties can be used inside of the show. One hundred percent. One hundred percent, that happens.

Who Broke Through at NewFronts

Several of IMDb TV’s recent content announcements — the Dick Wolf and Greg Garcia shows, for example — were timed to coincide with this week’s NewFronts presentations. Like the decades-old TV upfront, they’re designed to give advertisers a better understanding of what’s ahead for major ad-supported platforms. I won’t try to sum up all the news from the past few days, but here a few things that caught my eye:

 While Amazon is obviously pushing IMDb TV hard, don’t sleep on Twitch. The company made the point that its traditionally gaming-centric service is about far more than watching the Youngs play video games, and suggested Twitch (along with IMDb TV) is a big part of the reason the company’s ad-supported content now reaches 120 million users every month. Per CNBC, that number was 20 million at the start of 2020.

Tubi’s presentation was well-produced and reasonably entertaining (thanks to host Will Arnett). But it was also frustratingly short on specifics: The platform promised 140 hours of original content, but didn’t announce any big new shows or talent deals. Instead it simply said there’d be stuff from Fox’s Bento Box animation studio and some documentaries. To me that suggests Fox plans to drive Tubi’s growth by putting more shows from its broadcast network on its new digital sibling. (A slew of unscripted Fox shows, including The Masked Singer, already live on Tubi as well.)

Roku Channel also spent more time focused on ad technology than content, which makes sense, I suppose. The streamer’s secret sauce is its ability to microtarget ads to customers, including through the beachfront real estate that is the Roku menu homepage. There were, of course, plenty of clips from the Quibi acquisition–the newly-branded Roku Originals– but still no word on when or how they’ll start rolling out. Maybe we’ll hear something when the company announces its first quarter earnings Thursday afternoon?

YouTube may have actually pulled off my favorite presentation. It had the most stars, both from the YouTube universe and more traditional media (including host Hasan Minhaj and closing performer Miley Cyrus). But it also did a great job reminding advertisers and the press that while YouTube is no longer making traditional scripted TV shows (such as Cobra Kai, now on Netflix), it still is where hundreds of millions of folks go each day for compelling, episodic, TV-like content. (Or, in my case, to watch a compilation of TV commercials which aired exactly 25 years ago today on UPN.) The most interesting stat to me: 57 percent of Americans now regularly watch YouTube on TV screens (as opposed to via phone or computer), making it the Google-owned company’s fastest-growing platform.

IMDb TV Wants to Win the Free Streaming Wars