Taking Amazon's Big Spending Plans With A Grain Of Salt

Someday, maybe oh, in 2018, you’ll look back at these days as the time when online video just began getting its legs, with Netflix getting big, and places like Amazon Fire making big commitments to programming.

Big is relative, though. When Amazon’s CFO Tom Szkutak announced that Amazon would be spending $100 million on original programs in this quarter. That's nothing to sneeze at -- I did anyway because I have a cold—but in context ,that kind of dough doesn’t go far in the content production biz.

Variety’s Cynthia Littleton reported earlier this year that each of the commercial broadcast networks spend $80 million to $100 million on program R&D before stuff ever gets to air. The fact is, even as you reject the idea of watching prime-time TV anymore, almost all of itsfails, and only occasionally are those cancellations unwarranted.



Online video platforms attempt to satisfy a different set of viewer expectations—the profanity is more profane, the sexual stuff is more raw, and the plots aren’t always like playing connect-the-dots. 

But when Amazon debuts four new series--its viewers voted them into existence after seeing the pilots--the fact is, unless I’m missing something huge, the content-watching world is not going to be startled by the brilliance of the stuff.

A lot of the online productions—yes, “House of Cards” included--gets a huge pass because there’s an almost universal rooting interest in Bringing Up Online. It’s a desire shared by viewers, producers, talent and of course, the online content creators.

That was true with cable, too, when, in the first days, programmers would look at a new project and say, “That’s good—for cable.”

Only one of the new Amazon series, “Transparent,” a dark comedy starring Jeffrey Tambor as the patriarch of a family of grown children who announces he wants to undergo a sex change, is really way outside the box. Ten half-hours will air beginning this September.

There are three others that will show up around the same time. “Mozart In The Jungle,” is about what really goes on in New York’s most exclusive theatrical orchestra pits among classically trained musicians, based on Blair Tindall’s book; “Bosch” is a drama about a  flawed but sharp veteran LAPD detective, based on novelist Michael Connelly’s complicated Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch character; a third series is “The After,” a sci-fi world-is-over thing from Chris Carter, the creator of “The X-Files.”

They are not redefining the content biz.

And so what. For Amazon, a retailer that “delivers” what people order, making series based on something like a voice vote is pretty perfect marketing and a rude mockery of network research gurus and trained programmers.

But Amazon also gets a built-in pass because like Netflix and HBO, people are directly paying for the programs, on outlets that have positioned themselves as glorious disruptors of the television status quo.

Add that attitude to just slightly above average fare and apparently, you get a very happy paying customer.  
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