By Jessica Gelt
6:30 AM PST, December 15, 2013
Will you go Prime? That's a question of increasing importance for Amazon Studios as its second original television series, "Betas," gets underway.
The show, which premiered last month and continues to roll out new episodes on Fridays, is about a group of young Silicon Valley strivers working to create the next big tech sensation. The first three episodes of the half-hour comedy were free.
Viewers who wish to watch additional episodes will need to sign up for Amazon Prime, which costs $79 a year and offers a grab bag of benefits including free two-day shipping on items purchased on the site, unlimited streaming of more than 40,000 movies and TV shows and more than 350,000 Kindle titles. (The company is tight-lipped about subscription numbers, so only Amazon will know if its original programming is driving customers to Prime.)
In April, Amazon posted 14 pilots online, including "Betas," and let viewers rate them in order to help pick which ones to bring to series. It's a nerve-racking process for creators and prompted some critics to accuse the company of making television by committee. But the populist strategy also is shaking up the standard network and cable paradigms as Amazon takes aim at muscular online competitors such as Hulu and Netflix.
"They had a lot of confidence that they would be able to sell content to their customers the same way that they sell products," says "Betas" executive producer Michael London. "A lot of humility that it wouldn't be easy or quick and a lot of conviction that if they gave their creators freedom that they would end up with top-notch programming."
"Betas" has earned four out of five possible stars on Amazon as rated by more than 2,000 customer reviews. The plot features best friends Trey (Joe Dinicol) and Nash (Karan Soni), who are creating a next-level social networking app with friends Mitchell (Charlie Saxton) and Hobbes (Jon Daly). When they gain the help of an outsized tech entrepreneur (Ed Begley Jr.), life in Silicon Valley heats up in unexpected ways.
"The whole idea of watching things on the Internet is that it's the easiest way to find your audience," says Dinicol. "You don't have to sit down at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday to watch 'Betas,' you can watch it whenever you want."
Still, "Betas" and Amazon's first scripted series, "Alpha House," which was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Garry Trudeau and stars John Goodman, hasn't gained the name recognition of Netflix heavy hitters "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black."
Not helping matters is the potential brand confusion being generated by marrying a massive retail operation with an online entertainment production company, say industry experts.
"When you read the reviews for a pair of shorts, you don't care how many people have bought that product," says James McQuivey, a media analyst with Forrester Research. "But with TV it's absolutely essential that you know that you're watching the same thing that 8 million other people have watched — because TV is a community experience."
And Amazon faces stiff competition for paying customers who can survey an ever-growing list of entertainment providers on television and the Web, they add.
"That's one of the problems with this new platform," says London of the new era of high-quality Web TV. "At what point do people feel inundated by too many options?"
Not any time soon, says Amazon's head of comedy series development, Joe Lewis, who is hoping to slowly and steadily walk the company's grand new gamble straight to the bank.
"There's an economy of attention right now, people only have so many hours in the day," says Lewis. "Platforms that thrive respond to what people want, which is watching high-quality programming any time, anywhere and for as cheap as possible."
Netflix is on the cutting edge of that formula and shook up television this year when it earned 14 Emmy nominations for its shows — a first for online-only original programming. David Fincher won an Emmy for directing Netflix's political thriller "House of Cards."
Proof of Netflix's power can be found in the numbers, at least partly. Though it refuses to release audience data about viewership, a recent report from the Internet monitoring firm Sandvine found that Netflix represents more than a third of all downstream traffic in North America.
YouTube scored second place at nearly 19%. Amazon Video has serious catching up to do as it accounts for 1.6% of downstream traffic, just ahead of Hulu's 1.3%.
Amazon Studios realizes it has to distinguish itself to grow its audience.
"We're focused on breaking down the walls of Hollywood," says Lewis. "Thanks to our open submission policy anybody in the world can get a script to Amazon development."
That may be, but the studio's first two series didn't come to Amazon through the open submission process. "Alpha House," about a group of Republican senators rooming together in a house in Washington, D.C., is the work of Trudeau. And "Betas" was pitched by London ("Sideways") and its young writer-creators Evan Endicott and Josh Stoddard.
Amazon helped develop "Betas," paying particular attention to the way the tech components of the show were executed. Amazon is one of the original tech giants, so this is territory the company knows well. Beyond that, however, London says that the studio gave them resources on par with any major television production and left them alone creatively.
Even the user rating system proved palatable.
"The same people who rank vacuum cleaners or aquariums are the same people that rank our show," says London. "At first it felt alienating and strange, but now I like those feedback lists on Amazon. Usually in the TV world you're subject to the test-group vagaries of 30 people in a room in Vegas. This may have felt like a beauty contest, but at least it was a public beauty contest — we could get up in the middle of the night and read 78 comments on our show."
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