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Amazon joins Netflix, Hulu, Google with original TV programming

Amazon Studios original content

Online retailing giant and e-book market leader Amazon is getting into the original video programming business. Starting today, Amazon is inviting anyone with a good idea for a primetime comedy or children’s television series to submit a pitch. Amazon promises to option one promising project a month for possible development, with an eye towards creating a stable of original programming with quality levels (and production budgets) akin to “real” television shows. Produced series will be made available (presumably exclusively) via Amazon Instant Video, Amazon’s streaming video service available as part of Amazon Prime.

This isn’t Amazon’s first foray into original content — Amazon Studios is also looking at developing movies in partnership with Warner Bros. But in looking to develop original series, Amazon isn’t just going up against broadcast and cable networks, it’s also going up against the like of Netflix, Hulu, and Google, who are also producing their own original series exclusive to their services.

What’s Amazon’s plan, and does its crowd-sourcing attitude stand a chance?

Amazon’s Pitch

Amazon Studios (TV)

Amazon’s plan for getting original series’ ideas kind of turns the traditional Hollywood system on its head. The way a television series typically gets made, a writer puts together a pitch, usually consisting of a brief description of a proposed series (including characters, setting, a few episode ideas, and maybe some production discussion) along with a completed script for a pilot episode. That’s where most television series ideas die, because getting that packet into the hands of someone at a studio or a network with the authority to greenlight a series is tremendously difficult. And, even then, the answer is most likely “no.” Getting a TV show idea optioned — let alone OK’d for a pilot episode or getting a production commitment for a series — is very much a game of who you know, who you’ve worked for, and who you can sweet talk. Many writers employ agents (and their more-extensive contact lists) to get their material into the right hands, but it’s still a long shot. Most writers who successfully pitch a television series idea have already paid their dues as freelance or staff writers on other television series; then they ply their contacts, professional credibility, and personal relationships to get their ideas considered. It’s an industry where being an insider is tremendously useful.

Amazon plans to bypass the industry pecking order. The company is inviting anyone to submit their ideas for a comedy or children’s programming series. Writers need to supply a five-page description and a completed pilot script — comedy series have a 22-minute format, children’s shows run 11 minutes. Once a pitch is submitted, Amazon Studios promises it’ll make a decision on whether to buy an option for the series within 45 days — which is a stunningly fast turnaround time, considering how long some series ideas kick around Hollywood before getting a green light. If Amazon doesn’t pick up a series, writers have an option to leave it on the Amazon Studios’ site (where it can be visible to everybody and can gather community input) or take it down and try taking the idea elsewhere. Submissions can be private, so submitting a pitch to Amazon doesn’t necessarily jinx it for later consideration by other studios or producers.

Amazon Studios TV series pitch process

What do writers get? If Amazon options a series idea, it’ll pay the creator(s) $10,000 up front. If Amazon Studios decides to move the idea to a full-budget series, it’ll pay the creator(s) $55,000, along with “up to” 5 percent of Amazon’s net receipts from Amazon’s net receipts selling things like toys and t-shirts that may be connected with the series. Amazon Studios is signatory to both the Writers’ Guild and the Animation Guild; that doesn’t mean non-union members can’t submit scripts, but if their idea moves to production, they’ll likely be required to join the WGA.

How does that work out?

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To an unemployed writer, $10,000 (or $55,000!) can seem like a lot of money, and it’s difficult to compare to fees paid to series creators because most deals are negotiated individually with no fixed scale. The WGA’s minimum price for a half-hour script is about $30,000. Typically, a creator is paid for more than the script itself (usually the studio wants revisions and polishing too), so a basic fee for a pilot is usually around $50,000. So Amazon Studio’s fee for projects it intends to produce is surprisingly in line with industry practices — at least for inexperienced, new-to-the-market writers. Writers who already have successful series’ under their belts can command at least four times that much, sometimes far more.

Amazon isn’t guaranteeing the creator will continue to be involved with any series it chooses to produce. It’s possible Amazon may offer the creator a position as a writer or producer on the series, which could entail additional per-episode fees. As an example, the WGA requires writers with a “created by” credit receive a royalty for each episode produced beyond a pilot. For network primetime programming that’s currently about $1,000 for a one-hour program. Obviously, shorter programming has smaller royalties, and who knows what royalty a program to be distributed only on Amazon Instant Video could command. Amazon, notably, isn’t promising creators any profit or revenue participation in produced series, other than a share of secondary merchandizing. Of course, Hollywood is notorious for fudging numbers — sometimes even a series that make studios oodles of cash manages to stay “in the red” so folks due a share of “profits” get nothing. But, say, a series becomes a massive hit in Brazil and Amazon Studios signs a lucrative broadcast licensing deal there — the amount the creator would receive from that looks to be close to zero.

Amazon Studios’ new series development efforts will be headed up by Joe Lewis and Tara Sorenson. Lewis was previously director of production at 20th Century Fox and development manager at Comedy Central, where he was in charge of production of Tosh.0. Sorenson was VP of development for National Geographic’s kids’ programming and production group; before that, she was a VP at Sony Pictures Television, where she helped develop series like the animated Men in Black and Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Sizing up the competition

Amazon Studios seems to be making the same bet as Netflix, Hulu, and Google: By crafting original programming that’s exclusive to their streaming video services, they have a chance at being more than just-another-streaming-video-provider offering pretty much the same things as everyone else. Original programming may provide a unique hook that can attract and retain subscribers.

Amazon Studios’ decision to go with 22-minutes comedies and short-from (11-minutes) children’s programming seems smart. If Netflix’s numbers are any indications, American’s interest in streaming video seems to lie primarily with television programming. Short form comedy and children’s programming would seem to feed right into that appetite: small, easily-digestible (and downloadable) chunks that provide near-instant gratification.

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This makes Amazon Studios a bit of a contrast to Netflix for original content production. Netflix’s first efforts at original programming have attempted to position the service as a provider of upscale scripted drama, akin to an HBO or Showtime. Netflix’s first series was the fish-out-of-water drama Lillyhammer (renewed for a second season) and the company is following up with a guaranteed 26 episodes of David Fincher’s political drama House of Cards, with high-profile actor Kevin Spacey. Netflix is also working on a horror-drama series Hemlock Grove, being developed by Hostel director Eli Roth. Of course, Netflix isn’t eschewing comedy, it’s bringing back the former Fox series Arrested Development and is developing Orange is the New Black, a prison comedy series based on the book of the same name by Piper Kerman. But Netflix’s original programming efforts are (so far) following more along the lines of traditional television series — established actors, real production budgets, name production talent — rather than trying to crowdsource the YouTube generation.

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Speaking of YouTube, what is Google up to? YouTube is taking a shotgun approach to exclusive content, with original content channels — Google is pledging some $200 million in marketing support to channels, with YouTube partners getting up to $5 million each. (The catch: Partners have to earn back that advance before they start sharing ad revenue with Google.) Google has landed some significant talent for its channels, including the Queen Mum of pop stars Madonna, and nerd-fan fave Felicia Day. Another notable channel is WIGS (Where It Gets Interesting), which has enlisted well-known names like Dakota Fanning, Julia Stiles, and Alfred Molina. Google says by the end of July it will be offering 25 hours of new original content on YouTube every day — meaning people couldn’t keep up even if they didn’t sleep.

And what about Hulu? Instead of springing Athena-like from the mind of some code-savvy Internet entrepreneur, Hulu was birthed from the likes of television studios and cable providers, which ought to give it the inside track on producing original video content for digital subscribers. And, indeed, Hulu’s first original series, the celebrity-documentary A Day in the Life was originally pitched to cable channels, and Hulu’s follow-up (the sitcom Battleground) was originally intended for Hulu part-owner Fox. What’s next? Hulu hasn’t really said, save for announcing plans for an unscripted travel series with Richard Linklater dubbed Up to Speed.

What does it mean for TV?

It’s easy to argue video streaming providers getting into the business of producing original video content is a good thing. After all, as the American television industry shifted away from three dominate broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) into and into cable television, syndication, time-shifting, and increasingly-focused programming offerings, the amount of television and video content available to most American consumers is staggering. A few generations ago, people were literally standing on porches and peering in living room windows at an appointed time to catch a glimpse of Uncle Miltie on a tiny black-and-white television. These days, the typical American consumer has instant access to dozens (perhaps hundreds) of television channels , as well as a broad selection of content available via the Internet and even their mobile devices. Sure, some people pay hundreds of dollars a month for these services, but quite a lot of content is available at no direct cost — save being subjected to advertising or (perhaps) disclosure of demographic information. And, of course, most of current material is also available illegally online, for anyone willing to run the risks. Diversity of content — as well as a diversity of distribution channels — means more types of shows are produced, more values are represented, more chances are taken, and — in theory, at least — our culture is more enriched.

But it’s important to remember that, like cable channels, services like Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and (soon) Amazon are exempt from things like the FCC’s educational and informational (E/I) requirements, which currently mandate terrestrial broadcasters carry a mere three hours of educational or children’s programming per week. It’s a good bet that companies that produce original digital video content are doing so with an eye towards maximizing advertising revenue. If that coincides with the public interest, that’d be great, but if not…well, these companies aren’t philanthropic organizations.

Perhaps more troubling for consumers and advertisers, however, is that many of these original efforts runs the risk of being restricted to a particular content ghetto. Google’s efforts with YouTube are available to anyone with an Internet connection, but Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are effectively locking their original content behind a paywall, which significantly limits their audience. Folks who are deeply interested in these original content offerings may find themselves having to subscribe to multiple services (Netflix at $7.99 a month, Hulu at $9.99 a month, Amazon Prime at $79 a year) to see their favorite programming. And that’s on top of anything they’re paying for cable, mobile, or Internet service. That may mean, like many original shows produced by premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime — shows tend to only succeed in the long term, when they become available on DVD and via other services, making them accessible to a broader range of consumers. Premium cable networks have had trouble making that revenue model work — and it’s not at all clear if it can work at all in the Internet video market — with its correspondingly shorter attention spans.