Amazon Seeks to Reinvent Prime-Time Television


David Wills

Fresh off the heels of an incredibly successful Golden Globes showing, Amazon’s latest season of TV pilots has arrived. This time, there are 13 pilots available for viewers to watch, rate, and review, six of which are aimed towards children. However, almost more important than the current crop of pilots is the innovative way that Amazon Prime Instant Video is dealing with their series-selection process.

The premise is simple: Amazon Prime members can stream any of these pilots for free and rate them. With this, the Amazon audience has unprecedented power in the pilot process. After looking at audience reactions, determining which pilots were most popular, and gauging each show’s long-term potential, Amazon will choose to order a full series for any one they choose.

By utilizing this novel yet incredibly sensible business model, Amazon seems to actually recognize the power of the audience. Instead of letting a few choice executives have all the say like most major television networks and subscription on-demand services, Amazon is leaving it up to their members, right down to the submissions themselves.

Amazon isn’t just crowd-sourcing their decision of which pilots will go to series; they are also crowd-sourcing the pile of scripts they have to choose from as well. They’ve set up Amazon Studios, a hub where screenwriters can submit their pilot scripts. If Amazon decides to pick up the series, the submitter gets paid compensation depending on how far Amazon decides to go with it.

So far, these strategies have paid off tremendously. With their flagship program, the most outstanding graduate of this process has been Transparent, a pilot-turned-series that recently won two Golden Globes, including one for Best Comedy Television Series.

Yet, herein lies an issue: sometimes Amazon’s interests and the audience’s interest don’t completely line up. Despite its status as a “prestige program” and winning countless awards, Transparent had the lowest viewing totals of all of the pilots it contended with, and yet Amazon still picked it up.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that this democratic method of choosing pilots is bad, though. What it does mean is that Amazon wants to step in and curate things to a certain extent, taking audience feedback and viewership into account while still playing the role of overseer. Perhaps Transparent initially garnered low pilot viewing totals because of how openly it discusses transgender issues. While this controversial topic might not garner consistently high ratings, Transparent turns this issue into great television, which is, thankfully, something that the folks at Amazon understood. By choosing to pick up Transparent (and being subsequently rewarded), they have shown that there can exist a balance between popularity and acclaim.

With that being said, is this audience participatory process the future for network TV as well? Only time will tell for certain, but for the foreseeable future, I’d say network TV is going to stay the same. The online accessibility component of Amazon Prime Instant Video gives them a leg up, as it makes it much easier for somebody to voice their opinion—all they have to do is watch an episode, scroll down, and give a 1-5 star rating and/or write a review. Until the networks can come up with an equally intuitive way of crowd-sourcing like this, they will probably keep their existing model.

What I do see happening, though, is all of the major networks and content providers keeping a close eye on the status of Amazon’s pilots and crowd-sourcing strategies. Most notably, I would not be surprised if Netflix tries to adapt this model for its own content creation. Netflix revolutionized the online-only television series with the award-winning House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, and they keep putting out new shows (and even reviving old ones). Given how similar a situation Netflix has with Amazon in terms of distribution, I could easily see Netflix crowd-sourcing their TV development just the same as Amazon does.

One thing is clear, though: television is evolving rapidly, and Amazon’s “pilot season” just adds fuel to the fire. With the binge-watching of shows increasing by the day and many people cutting cable altogether, the television of tomorrow looks like it is going to be much different than the television of the last few decades. It’s an exciting time for television, and an even more exciting time for its viewers.