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.
Though representing a disruptive move in terms of production and fruition, what Netflix did with “House of Cards” elegantly fitted within the tradition of quality TV of the past decade. Directed by David Fincher and written by Beau Willimon, the series is a challenging, high-quality product that pushes both conventions and expectations. Like other serialized small screen dramas before it, “House of Cards” is designed for a savvy, questioning, patient audience that cherishes thought-provoking entertainment.
Furthermore, Netflix’s decision to commission a two-season package without going through the pilot process likens a product like “House of Cards” more to cinema that to crowd-sourced TV. In this case we have a scripted story featuring a long narrative arch that doesn’t take into account the moaning caprices of the viewing public and instead forwards the artistic vision of its creator. “Alpha House” and “Betas,” on the contrary, feel softened by their own creative genesis, the rough edges knocked off. But it is precisely those rough edges that have made recent TV series so stimulating as well as appealing.
Netflix’s entrance into original content-making contributed to the ongoing renaissance of the quality drama. Amazon took a different path, perhaps because original content for the e-commerce giant is simply an accessory, a strategic pawn in a business where creativity plays but a minor role. Interestingly enough, both “House of Cards” and “Alpha House” are set in the corridors of power, but while the latter tries hard to project a good-humored if ineffective vision of political rule, the former is a ruthless, Machiavellian depiction of the inherently calculative nature of institutional politics.
Netflix is not in the business of overthrowing democratically elected governments, but “House of Cards” is without a doubt a daring and uncompromising look at how far removed from the voters’ needs and realities political elites are. If the last 10 or so years of television have proved anything, it is that audiences don’t mind a destabilizing dose of ugly truth (if skillfully and inventively told) as opposed to the usual, reassuring lies.
What came out of Amazon Studios so far goes decidedly against this tendency, and nothing proves this point better than “Betas.” The series follows a group of friends and their social media start-up in a fabled Silicon Valley where everything is possible and anyone can make it. At the moment, they’re struggling, but you can bet your backside that by the end of the season theirs will be a success story, just like Mr. Bezos’. Few things and places have been mythologized as the tech scene in recent years.
As Alice Warwick points out in her new book “Status Update,” “the myths of meritocracy and entrepreneurialism reinforce ideals of the tech scene that shore up its power structures and privileges.” Not only, as recent revelations indisputably prove, there is a much darker side to the sunny Californian valley than what its upper echelons prefer to let out — Amazon itself has been reported to be as unfriendly to its warehouse workers as it is friendly to its customers. While TV series like “House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad,” “Rectify” or “The Wire” insinuate doubts into the viewers’ minds as what exactly constitutes fairness in 21st century America, “Alpha House” and “Betas” offer a overall sense of “it’s all going to be okay.”
A recent article in Forbes speculated as whether Amazon had already lost its first battle against Netflix by not posting full seasons of its new shows at once like its competitor. The author of the article suggested that “episodes need to be released all at once to allow the viewer to decide how they want to absorb them. It’s the whole point of the medium [digital platforms]: customer control.” But Amazon’s strategy is subtler than that — the company has allowed the customer a different sort of say in determining which of its pilots got made, making them invested and part of the process. For Amazon, a weekly appointment with viewers means more people regularly visiting a platform designed to entice them to buy things, and where a subscription lasts for a whole year). The role that TV series play in Amazon’s strategy epitomize culture as another consumer good, not a way to narrate and interpret the world around us.