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Buyers Briefing news analysis: what Amazon can learn from Netflix

TransparentAmazon Prime Instant Video took a page out of Netflix’s play book this week when it became apparent it would launch all episodes of one of its upcoming scripted series simultaneously. Could the move mean the streaming service will start launching all of its shows in this way and does Transparent offer a clear opportunity to claw back some of the ground lost to Netflix in terms of buzz and hype?

When, earlier this week, Jill Solloway (Six Feet Under) let slip at The Critics Association summer tour that her upcoming comedy-drama Transparent would be launched ‘Netflix style’ – i.e. all at once – was she unwittingly signifying a change in Amazon’s content strategy and a shift to a binge-friendly model that is perfectly suited to the on-demand world?

The series, about a dysfunctional LA family, will launch in September after being successfully piloted and well received by Amazon’s Prime Instant Video subs. It will be a significant moment for Amazon as it has previously taken a partly old-world approach to rolling out its original dramas, launching a batch of a few episodes and then more on a weekly basis, like a regular TV channel. It is, of course, not a regular channel and unencumbered by schedules, so can release content how it chooses.

Similarly, so can Netflix and its simultaneous release model, started with Steve van Sandt series Lilyhammer, made the industry sit up and made viewers sit up – often all night to watch more episodes.

All of the stats point to binging increasing: DVR firm TiVo recently identified a new category of on-demand viewer – the ‘super-binger’. It claims 75% of its subs super-binge, meaning they watch whole seasons of a show in matter of days. Over 90% of the 15,000 people surveyed by TiVo said that regular binging – watching three episodes in a row – was now commonplace for them.

Numerous other studies reassert that watching series in this way is the new normal and Amazon has prevented its customers from indulging in this way by holding back episodes. The net effect is that Netflix’s originals have generated a lot more buzz, and a greater number of column inches. While House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are the talk of the town, the same cannot be said for Alpha House, Betas or Amazon’s other originals.

Amazon viewers can binge on an array of content – Instant Video has a deeper line-up than Netflix – but not the service-defining original content. Amazon Studios boss Roy Price told TBI last year that “it’s possible there is a middle-ground hybrid model”. He added: “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.”

It’s possible Netflix has just had better shows so far, but Amazon has missed a marketing trick with its hold-backs. Where Amazon and Netflix are in unison is in never disclosing viewing numbers – “there’s nothing our competitors would like to know more”, an Amazon rep told TBI this week – so a true comparison of the duo’s originals is not possible (Amazon does not even disclose how many Prime customers it has while Netflix does at least give subscriber numbers).

Amazon has issued various claims, never supported by data, about the success of its original and acquired content, and if taken at face value, these positive viewing stats prove Amazon’s original programming is a useful customer retention tool. But whether they are also a subscriber acquisition tool is open to question given there simply is not a widespread awareness of its own shows.

The lack of awareness will also not help the effort to distribute the original content to regular channels, which is being handled by Sony’s distribution arm.

Conversely, Netflix has built such a head of steam with its originals it could start scheduling episodes of House of Cards weekly and generate the same buzz and excitement as a big cable series – although having been instrumental in creating a generation of bingers, it is unlikely to do so.

In the absence of viewing data, it can be said that Netflix is winning the battle of the watercooler – its originals are much more buzzy and much more talked about. The first step to redressing that balance is to generate some of that Netflix hype and buzz by launching series all at once – giving bingers something to feast their eyes on and building some word of mouth hitherto in short supply for its originals. Independent numbers for the first season of House of Cards suggest that about 3% of subs consumed three or more eps in the launch weekend giving the bingers something to feast on, but also meaning a large proportion of customers watched over a longer period. Netflix got the marketing hype and the large part of its programming investment was eked out over weeks and months as viewers caught the series.

Ripper Street, Transparent, Bosch, The After and new pilots and originals are heading to Prime Instant Video. Taking a lead from Netflix’s releasing strategy will help them break through. In the case of Jill Solloway’s show, Amazon Prime Instant Video customers have already said they like it and critics like it too. It’s clear, from the outside, that Transparent is Amazon’s chance to claw back some ground on Netflix.