Amazon nears debut of original TV shows

Actor Ed Begley Jr. plays a financier in “Betas,” one of the 14 television show pilots being made by Inc. The firm is asking select viewers to choose its lineup.
Amazon via associated Press
Actor Ed Begley Jr. plays a financier in “Betas,” one of the 14 television show pilots being made by Inc. The firm is asking select viewers to choose its lineup.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Amazon is letting viewers help choose its new lineup of TV shows, scuttling a secretive process once reserved for Hollywood taste-makers.

The online retailing giant will let visitors from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany watch, rate, and critique 14 pilot episodes the company has bankrolled. Viewer comments will help the company decide which shows — if any — get the green light.

‘‘Why follow the guru method when you don’t have to anymore?’’ says Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. ‘‘The audience is out there, and the audience is interested. We might as well make them a partner in the process.’’


Amazon’s foray into TV production is unique in the way it saves money. Every spring, traditional TV networks such as ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox order dozens of pilots and show them to focus groups. Executives pick just a handful to make into series. Then, they commission 13 episodes of each promising show, with each one potentially costing a few million dollars. Many episodes won’t ever air if the first few don’t attract big audiences.

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Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here Inc. is riding a wave of Internet-fueled people power that is transforming the entertainment industry. Crowd-sourcing, the act of soliciting content and ideas from the online masses, is now valued. Online buzz can make or break movies these days. And crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter help generate fans and start-up capital before would-be producers start filming.

Amazon is testing the market with kids’ shows and comedies, each a half hour long. Going into full production will pay off if enough people sign up to pay $79 a year for Amazon Prime, a service that offers free shipping on Amazon orders, an e-book borrowing service, and home and mobile access to movies and TV shows. Members will get access to the full original series when completed. Others get access if they pay.

Under the age-old TV model, any number of factors can derail a program’s ability to draw an audience in its early days — a weak lead-in show, for instance, or competition from a big event.

Alan Cohen, a producer of the Amazon comedy pilot, ‘‘Betas,’’ says Amazon’s new way of launching shows could offer show creators relief from the pressure of network TV.


‘‘We’re not just playing that time-slot game,’’ Cohen says. ‘‘Here, you have the opportunity to put it out, and it doesn’t matter exactly what time it airs. People can find the show and it’ll be out there.’’

As it makes big bets on online video, Amazon is competing with companies such as Netflix Inc. and Hulu. Netflix debuted its big-budget original series ‘‘House of Cards’’ in February to critical acclaim.

But Amazon has more to gain from growing Prime members than just paying for TV shows. Once people join Prime, according to Benchmark Co. analyst Daniel Kurnos, they tend to buy six to eight times more items from Amazon than nonmembers, in part to take advantage of the free shipping. They also buy digital books and movies on the store that aren’t included as freebies.

Amazon doesn’t divulge how many Prime members it has. Kurnos estimates there are between 6 million and 10 million.

‘‘Amazon has always been trying to drive more customers to Prime. Not because Prime itself is profitable, but because it gives you golden handcuffs,’’ Kurnos said.


The company gets a second benefit from Prime because third-party sellers pay fees to be included in the Prime free shipping program, which requires that they send their goods to Amazon warehouses for handling. That keeps the company’s facilities humming.

The company is taking a creative stab in the TV space, not just a financial one. One of the original pilots, ‘‘Betas,’’ is about a start-up trying to create the world’s greatest social media app. The ‘‘Betas’’ shoot took place in a real-life shared workspace for app developers in Santa Monica, Calif. The show treads on familiar ground for Amazon, the Internet pioneer company Jeff Bezos founded in a Seattle garage two decades ago.