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Amazon Says Its Pilot System Is Working, but What About Binge Viewing?

The online giant isn’t convinced that the the binge approach favored by rival Netflix is the best way to release original programming

Netflix gets a lot of attention for disrupting the television business by releasing every episode of a new series all at once, but Amazon continues to shake up another part of the same business – the pilot process. Amazon launched a second round of pilots for original series on Thursday, making 10 pilots available for free to users of Amazon Instant Video and the U.K.-based Lovefilm.

The pilots include two hour-long shows — Amazon’s first foray into drama — as well as three comedies and five kids’ shows. Amazon will decide whether to pick them up for a full series based on viewer response — how many users watch the different pilots, their comments and reviews. This is the same methodology Amazon used for its initial group of 14 pilots, five of which earned full series orders.

“Given the evidence we have, we believe the whole process worked well,” Amazon Studios chief Roy Price told TheWrap. “Amazon customer and IMDb users are interested in giving feedback on pilots and seeing new things in development.”

IMDb, by the way, is owned by Jeff Bezos’s growing online venture.

Also read: Is Netflix Luring Away HBO and Showtime Customers?

The first two Amazon shows released to the public were “Alpha House,” the political comedy starring John Goodman, and “Betas,” a comedy about a start-up. Neither of those have earned the widespread acclaim bestowed upon a pair of Netflix’s initial shows, “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” but the involvement of actors such as John Goodman and Bill Murray secured Hollywood’s attention.

“I’m thrilled to be able to see actors of that caliber doing work you’d see on HBO or Showtime or in indie movies,” Jill Soloway, a veteran writer and director who created “Transparent,” one of the new pilots, told TheWrap. “There’s a big middle space being filled by Amazon. You don’t need to make the $50 million blockbuster or a $40,000 independent film.”

She is one of several successful Hollywood writers, producers and directors who joined forces with Amazon. Other pilots debuting Thursday include “Bosch,” a crime series based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling books; “The After,” a science-fiction series from “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter; “The Rebels,” a show about a fictional Los Angeles football team executive produced by Ice Cube and written by Jeremy Garelick and Jon Weinbach, and “Mozart in the Jungle,” a comedy depicting the raunchier side of classical music written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers.

Also read: Amazon Makes Its First Exclusive Movie Deal – And It’s With A24

Coppola said he was drawn to “Mozart” when Schwartzman told him he found a book described as “sex, drugs and classical music.”

“There was this instant recognition of an exciting world to portray, particularly as a TV show,” Coppola told TheWrap. “You have artistic people with foibles that can be big personalities.”

Soloway’s “Transparent” weaves together the lives of a father (Jeffrey Tambor) and his three adult children, who are scattered across Los Angeles. Soloway never thought she would get to tell this story after making a couple of indie films, “Una Hora Por Favora” and “Afternoon Delight,” that premiered at Sundance. She figured she’d have to take a job to pay the bills before working on another passion project.

“It’s unreal that I get to continue to explore this authentic artistic piece of myself ad know there is distribution in place,” she said.

Whether Soloway gets to continue telling this story will depend on whether viewers embrace her vision. Price said the initial pilots received hundreds of thousands of views, more than enough feedback to come to a definite conclusion about a show’s popularity.

“It’s frightening,” Soloway said, joking that she’d have to turn her Google Alerts off before Friday. “But the transparency Amazon has with its audience is exciting and refreshing, especially for me. I’m creating content about people who are considered ‘others.'”

Also read: Fox Bypassing Pilot Season, Says It’s a Relic

Amazon’s innovative approach comes as major networks are expressing frustration with the traditional pilot season. Last month at the Television Critics Association gathering in Pasadena, Calif., Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly said he would bypass a system he called a relic of an earlier age.

While Price has a good sense of how Amazon will evaluate the popularity of them all, the  release strategy remains flexible. Amazon released its first original shows in a different manner than Netflix, offering three episodes for free at first and then releasing the remaining episodes weekly for Prime subscribers.

“Before we put them up we analyzed the relative decay in social conversation between binge released and regular released,” Price said.

Amazon discovered social conversation around episodes released all at once declined much faster than shows released once a week. Normal shows decline about one-third after the first week, but conversation about “binge shows” dropped more than 60 percent after the first few weeks.

‘That’s a real dramatic shift in the ability of people to talk about shows,” Price said.

Amazon is not abandoning the idea of binge viewing. It just has less reason to believe in it than its pilot process.


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