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How Buzzy Streaming Services Are Playing Catch Up to Legacy Networks

TCA 2015: Amazon, Hulu and Netflix may have all the heat, but are executives ready for primetime?

The competition between traditional networks and streaming upstarts has been brewing for several years. For the last three weeks, that tension has played out at the semiannual Television Critics Association press tour, both on the stage and in the backroom scrums where insider TV gossip gets exchanged.

Lately, the buzz has tilted toward streaming outfits like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, as they aggressively expand their content offerings and look to gain in prestige and PR firepower over the legacy networks.

But the newbies sometimes betrayed a lack of experience at TCA — particularly in dealing with the often contentious television press. And the broadcasters flashed signs of growing insecurity at all the attention being lavished on TV’s pretty young things.

Take Amazon Studios, appearing last week for only the second time at a Television Critics Association press tour. Roy Price, the streaming service’s head, raised eyebrows for seeming to be under-prepared for easily anticipated questions about programming from controversial new talent Woody Allen and the “Top Gear” gang.

“Did you see Roy Price?” one top network exec mentioned to a Wrap writer at an evening cocktail gathering. The sentiment was not intended as a flattering one, reflecting the company’s relative inexperience handling traditional industry events like TCA.

Price at first tried to sidestep questions about whether Allen’s personal baggage came into play when Amazon ordered a series from the Oscar-winning writer-director. “Woody Allen is one of the greatest filmmakers America has ever produced,” Price said. “People are going to be talking about Woody’s films for a long, long time.”

But eventually he offered a qualified explanation of the streaming network’s vetting process: “You have to look at the whole picture, focus, yeah, take everything into account. Our focus is on the fact that he’s a great storyteller.”

Price also drew questions regarding Amazon’s July deal for a new series with former “Top Gear” hosts Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond — who were forced out of the long-running and popular BBC show after Clarkson punched a producer. “Top Gear” had also drawn criticism for a segment mocking Mexicans; both examples were brought up by journalists as potential cautionary tales.

Still, Price declined to say whether he spoke to the hosts about limitations for the new show’s content or their off-screen behavior. “I can’t comment on all the details of our discussions or contracts or things like that, but we’re bullish on the show and think it will tour out well,” Price said.

Unlike Amazon’s Price, Hulu boss Craig Erwich didn’t make any particular gaffes during his streaming company’s third TCA appearance. Then again, he skipped an executive Q&A session entirely.

But Hulu neglected to book an on-stage emcee to moderate panels and zero writing/scrum breaks between each.

Ironically, the TV alternative is actually regressing towards traditional linear scheduling, releasing one episode per week for all of its originals. That decision surprised many TV critics.

“We want to give viewers the opportunity to discover their favorite shows every week,” Erwich said, touting “shared experience” and “watercooler” opportunities. “This will also allow us to get the shows out to our audiences faster, without waiting until full series completion.”

As for Netflix — the big boy of the bunch back for its sophomore TCA session — executives still refused to reveal any viewership numbers, something that continues to annoy traditional TV chiefs and researchers among their own audience.

The company’s unsubstantiated claim that “Orange Is the New Black” is the most-watched TV series — coupled with zero evidence — has been openly challenged by the owners of “Empire” and “The Walking Dead,” among others.

Beyond general industry frustration, boss Ted Sarandos faced the tough question of why he squashed a scheduled Bill Cosby stand-up special, but still offers “The Cosby Show” on DVD-by-mail.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to release that,” Sarandos said of the stand-up special, noting that it was produced by Netflix as opposed to “The Cosby Show,” an NBC production owned by Carsey-Werner. “We think we have continued to act appropriately when it comes to Mr. Cosby.”

Finally, Yahoo asserted its presence without an actual scheduled TCA appearance — canceling “Community,” its first big splash into sitcoms — after just one season.

In fairness, the TCA presentations by broadcast and cable networks were not without their flaws. But they generally had more polish, borne of experience handling lengthy press conferences and temperamental entertainment journalists.

The streaming newbies also have significantly less original content to promote than the traditional six English-language broadcast nets. According to FX, there have been 109 different broadcast TV series aired so far in 2015 compared to just 23 in the online realm — which includes Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and Yahoo.

The good news for the streaming services: They’ll have five months to prep for the 2016 Winter TCA at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif.