Over a period of weeks this past April, Amazon conducted a unique test: It streamed 14 series pilots and let viewers vote on which should become the Internet behemoth’s first original “TV shows.” The result of “the first TV show election” led to Amazon greenlighting five original series: Alpha House and Betas for adults, plus three children’s programs. Amazon isn’t just plumping up its offerings like Apple does—adding a new iMac this year that got much thinner but marginally more powerful—and Amazon never made a secret of its ideas about the “Internetification” of TV. Those ideas are now reality.
What’s the deal?
Among Amazon’s 14 pilots were Onion News Empire, a behind-the-scenes look at the satirical Onion News operation, and a series based on the movie Zombieland. The weekend that the episodes were released for free streaming on its Instant Video service, Amazon reports, the pilots were “8 of the 10 most streamed TV episodes.” John Goodman stars in Alpha House, “a political comedy about four quirky U.S. senators” becoming roommates in Washington, D.C. The show averaged four out of five stars in some 3,000 reviews. Betas is about four quirky young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs (see a pattern developing?) launching yet another social networking app. It scored 4.3 stars in 2,000+ reviews. Both pilots are still streaming for free, and will debut along with the children’s shows later this year.
Amazon’s new shows are “exclusive, premium” offerings on its Prime Instant Video service, yet a free benefit of an Amazon Prime account. Members can watch the original programs in various ways—on tablet PCs and laptop rentals, via TV apps, and over Roku and other streaming devices. Amazon Prime is $79 annually and includes such nice fringe benefits as free 2-day shipping on all site purchases, access to the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, and a free book rental every month. Not sure about it? Amazon says, “No problem.” You can check out the service with a 30-day free trial and then decide if you want to commit to a full year. Other companies claim a better mix of content and pricing, so we’ll have to see how consumers respond.
The field gets crowded
Although Amazon is the first major content producer to empower viewers to greenlight new shows, it is not the first service to produce original Web programs. Hemlock Grove and House of Cards (with Kevin Spacey) are already on Netflix, as is the fourth season of Arrested Development. Hulu is bringing up to a dozen new series in 2013, including The Awesomes, a cartoon with Seth Meyers, and Quick Draw, a comedy Western. Interestingly, Hulu will let viewers see the shows for free on laptops and computers, but require a Hulu Plus subscription ($7.99/mo) to watch on an iPad rental, smartphone, or TV. And to watch any Netflix show, you must have a subscription (same as Hulu Plus, $7.99). The number of original shows will increase by at least eight in 2014.
Notwithstanding possible communitarian impulses, it may be that Amazon is simply hedging its bets with the voting. But consumers are notoriously fickle. If consumer polls and focus groups were consistently dependable, no new products or services that employed them would ever fail. That’s not reality. So, we shall see—and, yes, we’ll keep you posted!
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