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Amazon: piloting a new future

Roy-PriceAmazon Studios director Roy Price talks to Stewart Clarke about pilots, original programming and his vision for content on Amazon Prime Instant Video and Lovefilm… and why the traditional TV business should see what he’s doing as an opportunity and not a threat

Amazon announced its first five original series in May, which were selected from a pool of 14 pilots. As befits a non-linear service, Amazon tore up the piloting rule book, doing away with the usual round of audience testing and making the episodes available to all of its Instant Video subs in the US and Lovefilm customers in the UK. (Latterly, it also added a private submission option for creatives not wanting to share their work with the world.)

In fairness, a linear broadcaster could not do the same without giving over an unfeasibly large chunk of its schedule to pilots, but the notion of crowd-sourcing feedback sits well with the new on-demand, non-linear viewer Amazon is courting. The digital company’s customers are also used to leaving feedback on books and other products, so adding TV to the mix was not a huge leap.

The pilots taken to series included political comedy Alpha House (pictured), which will star John Goodman; Betas (pictured, above), about four roommates trying to get a social media start-up off the ground; and kids series Annebots, Creative Galaxy and Tumbleaf. “One key learning was that people are keen to try out new material and share their opinion and that means that piloting on Amazon will work,” says Amazon Studios director Roy Price. “Getting large-scale feedback is different to a focus group, we’re showing it to the audience rather than a small part of that audience.”

How you interpret that data and what resources you allocate to that task is the next challenge. “You need to interpret the feedback intelligently,” Price says. “There is all sorts of feedback, with some you can add up the number of people watching and aggregate that in a survey as there are a finite number of responses. With an overall point of view or freeform review you have to actually go through it and that takes time and manpower.”

The process is not entirely new, Price notes, citing the example of a play that opens in smaller cities and is refined on the road before making it (or not) to Broadway.

Assuaging the fears of writers and creatives who might be reluctant to place the future development of something they have poured their heart into in the lap of the viewer, Price says the point is seeing what people react to, not using feedback to tweak the narrative or alter a story arc.

“That’s an important distinction, it’s about assessing how successful something is in its current form versus coming up with the answer – we are not proposing crowd-sourcing a show’s creative direction,” he says.

The bigger picture is that Amazon is betting that the audience outreach will, in bucking convention, unearth a gem that regular TV is not set up to find. “If you look at the history of TV, a lot of the game-changing shows came from networks that were new or coming off a bad streak because that made them more open minded,” Price says. “We want a similar creative approach driven by our open-mindedness and process. We’re very open to the audience because the theory is when you set up gatekeepers – i.e. TV executives – a conventional wisdom will be formed and that will be 95% correct, but incorrect for 5% of the time. The show that will redefine TV for the next 5-to-10 years might come from that 5% and we want a system that backs that and defies the conventional wisdom.”

Price says the creative community now knows where Amazon is coming from. “We’re getting a good flow of material and will ramp up the process, most people in TV are aware of Amazon and Amazon Prime and that we are developing and doing pilots.”

The Amazon programming team also use a traditional approach – it has greenlit a pilot from The X-Files creator Chris Carter, The After, and kids show Maker Shack Agency – and it is working with agents in the US and a development team.

In terms of genre the focus was originally comedy and kids shows  – “it was just good to start somewhere,” Price says – and now also encapsulates drama. Amazon and Prime customers like docs, the Studios boss notes, but the initial focus is on the other categories of programming.

If the pilot process is not like the one employed in TV, the production methodology is largely the same and Amazon sees a commercial benefit to keeping programmes to a familiar, TV friendly length.

“There’s a great deal of flexibility and we could have various time formats and be more unconventional, but all things being equal  if it can be a commercially standard format so it can be distributed elsewhere that would be helpful.” A third-party distributor looks set to join the party, Price adds:  “We will be at MIPCOM buying and selling. We will also be selling through a partner who we have identified although there is no closed deal.”

Over and above viewing numbers, the measure of success for Amazon will be attracting and retaining Prime and Lovefilm customers.

The manner in which Amazon will release the content to those subs is under discussion, but Price is cool on the simultaneous release model pioneered by Prime Instant’s chief rival, Netflix, citing the need to build buzz and also the drawback of waiting for a series to finish production before it launches.

“It’s possible there is a middle-ground hybrid model,” according to Price. “That may be [put out] episode one, or one through three and then release the others as they become available. One may be too few and thirteen may be more than enough.”

The Studio boss refutes the idea that the traditional TV players are fearful of what Amazon and Netflix are doing. “I do not imagine those people are scared if there are one or two more entities in a market of many, and only producing so many shows,” he says. “I don’t see rivalry but do see some opportunity to work together. If it’s a studio, we could produce together or we could license a show to a network in the right window or they could license something to us.”

As traditional TV congratulates itself on creating a golden age of TV drama, Price does, however, not buy into the notion: “I don’t call this a Golden Age because we’ve had a couple of those already haven’t we?

“Hopefully we’ll be calling it the Silicon Age in a few years from now.”