By Celluloid Liberation Front | Indiewire December 3, 2013 at 1:23PM
As soon as Amazon announced its first round of original series, thoughts were drawn to Netflix and its big year of introducing shows of its own, starting with "House of Cards." Parallels between the two companies were quickly drawn -- and understandably so. Amazon, too, is a customer service-oriented company trying its luck at narrative creativity as Netflix had already done with considerable success. Because of the implied creative race between the two companies, expectations were high for the first two Amazon Studios productions, "Alpha House" and "Betas."
They were also somewhat frustrated after their respective premieres. Reviews have been lukewarm and almost unanimous in pointing out the ultimate insubstantiality of the first two series made by Amazon, especially when compared to Netflix's thunderous first entry of 2013. Both "Alpha House" and "Betas" are competently crafted, mildly entertaining but, overall, unexceptional. Amazon, it would seem, has lost its first battle against Netflix in failing to come up with as equally extraordinary a product as its competitor did. But is that really so? Was the creation of a groundbreaking TV show Amazon’s real goal? A closer look at the two companies' diverging business strategies suggest that it's Amazon that may have actually hit the jackpot.
Unlike Netflix, moving images are not Amazon's core business; creative capital is central to the former and only auxiliary to the latter, who've been building up streaming video offerings alongside a primary online retail focus. Netflix’s financial growth is directly related and due to the artistic merits of its first original production. The company's outspoken Head of Content, Ted Sarandos, knows that quality doesn't come neither cheap nor by any means quickly -- when asked by the Los Angeles Times why Netflix doesn’t make ratings public, he replied that "overnight ratings work against quality on television. That's why I don't want to adopt the one convention that I think is anti-quality."
Considering Netflix's growth in terms of both popularity and revenue, it seems safe to say that quality has driven quantity in its case. But what Amazon is trying to do is almost the opposite. If you want to watch the rest of "Alpha House" and "Betas" -- whose first three episodes were made freely available online -- you have to subscribe to Amazon Prime, the company’s service that gets you unlimited free two-day shipping for $79 a year and access to Prime Instant Video. And if you only want to watch Amazon Studios productions but aren't interested in shopping and having your purchases quickly delivered to your doorstep? Well, you can't. Why does Mr. Bezos want you to become an Amazon Prime subscriber? Because the service tends to boost customer spending dramatically, with subscribers spending on average 150% more than the average non-subscription customer and market predictions regarding the service's future more than optimistic, to say the least. Is Amazon's original content then just bait? You do the math.
Considering its business strategy, it is safe to assume that what Amazon is after is not so much an Emmy nomination as more souls signing up for its very lucrative service. In this respect then, the user-friendly middle-of-the-road qualities that characterize both "Alpha House" and "Betas" makes perfect sense. Amazon Studios want to meet the largest possible audience, and they know that that doesn't necessarily require critical success. Hence, why the Silicon Valley colossus put its initial 14 pilots before the public and used viewer feedback to decide which ones to greenlight to series. When asked what kind of information the company was after from this feedback process, Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, told Fast Company: "Are people interested in the character and in watching subsequent episodes? Does the pilot episode sustain interest?”
These are the kind of questions that, if positively answered, could provide the extra push to compel more viewers to sign up to Amazon Prime in order to be able to continue watching these exclusive series. But on a more creative level, what does this customer-obsessed approach will lead to? Creative freedom in television should be given to screenwriters, for the general public is already free to watch or not the given show.
One suspects that had the pilot of "Breaking Bad" been guided by popular taste, we might have never witnessed the full cynical glory of the Walter White parable. As Sarandos' aforementioned remark about ratings tell us, quality and “democracy” are not necessarily synonyms. Netflix too is said to have used data from their customers (viewing habits, genre preferences and so on) to come up with their version of the perfect creative equation. Yet the respective results clearly show that either Amazon's algorithm is very out of tune with Netflix’s or their aims are of a different nature.