Friday, April 19, 2013

Amazon's Pilot Experiment

The television development process goes a little something like this: the major networks will hire creatives to develop a show based on their pitches and ideas. Then they order pilots, which are test episodes, and often used as the introductory first episode of the series, if the show gets picked up to air. Pilots go through a lot of audience testing by the studios, and there are plenty that never make it past this stage. The NBC reboot of "Wonder Woman," for instance, shot a pilot but didn't make it to series.

Most people never get to see the pilots for the shows that aren't picked up, except under very unusual circumstances, because of certain financial issues and PR concerns. The information related to the audience testing is kept pretty tightly under wraps. So imagine Hollywood's surprise when Amazon made its first slate of original programming pilots, eight comedies and six kids shows, available to the public on Amazon Instant and Lovefilm, seeking people's direct feedback. Like Netflix, they've been looking to produce their own content, and are taking a different approach to the traditional television development process.

Among the pilots currently available for download are the "Zombieland" series, based on the 2009 Woody Harrelson film, "Alpha House" with John Goodman, about the hijinks of four senators forced to share the same address, "Browsers" with Bebe Neuwirth, about a news website, "Dark Minions," "Betas," about app developers, "Those Who Can't," about high school teachers, "and "Onion News Empire," an extension of the satirical Onion news organization. There are also two animated shows, "Supanatural," about crime-fighting divas, and "Dark Minions," described as a slacker science-fiction show. I haven't had a chance to watch any of them for myself yet.

There are some reasons to be cautious about this approach. Immediately any failures become more public, and if a high profile show liked "Zombieland" fails to attract much interest, it becomes harder to brush it aside. There was a lot of press and pictures passed around from "Wonder Woman," but NBC kept the actual footage from the pilot away from the public's gaze, and never so much as ran a commercial for it. Also, most television shows are launched with the benefit of advertising campaigns and a much more controlled narrative around them. Your first look at a new show is often through ads and commercials that help to generate hype, long before it actually goes to air. Presentation counts for a lot on television, and I don't know if Amazon is putting their best foot forward with some of these new projects.

Also, there's the little matter of retooling. Some shows have multiple pilots, or make major changes based on initial feedback. For instance, "The Big Bang Theory" had an initial pilot that featured a very different female lead character named Katie. She didn't really work, but the characters of Sheldon and Leonard and their interactions did. The second pilot with Kelly Cuoco as Penny got much better marks, and now "Big Bang" is a monster hit for CBS. Consider what might have happened if the public had seen the first dud pilot, and CBS decided to write the whole concept off based on their negative reactions. Some shows need more than one round of development, and t's pretty common to see notices about recasting and retooling. I don't know if the Amazon shows are going to enjoy the ability to make tweaks and changes. For them it may be sink or swim.

Still, the idea of getting the potential audience involved this early in a show's life cycle is a really appealing idea. If people latch on to a particular pilot, you could get strong word of mouth going before committing to a full series. Fans could become more invested in its survival, and the wider exposure could provide better data on how a show is likely to do in the long run, and help to create better marketing. This would be an advantage to the more niche shows that appeal strongly to a smaller audience, and from Amazon's press releases these are definitely people that the company wants to hear from. It's important to remember that it's the Amazon executives who will ultimately be deciding which shows go to series, and the audience feedback will only be one factor they consider.

After seeing how Netflix is handling the launch of "House of Cards" and its other new shows, it's interesting to se the different tactics that Amazon has embraced. These companies are in a rare position that they can afford to experiment a little and try out different things, because nobody really knows how launching web platform based programming is supposed to work. What works for television may not work on the internet, and vice versa. It's a very exciting process to keep an eye on, and we'll see how successful they prove to be.

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