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As Amazon uses public feedback to choose new series I wonder: Can a TV outlet outsource its gut to consumers?

Now that news is starting to trickle out about which pilot episodes online retailer Amazon is picking up as its first original series, I have just two questions.

Is the general public really the best judge of which pilots will make the best series? And is a pilot process really transparent when the company conducting it offers little public information about the process?



At first, the setup sounded like a perfect reflection of our on-demand TV age: Amazon placed 14 pilot episodes online last month, featuring eight comedies and six kids shows. Users of the retailer’s Amazon Prime service could watch each pilot and weigh in on how they felt, writing reviews and giving out 1 to 5-star evaluations like any Amazon product.

Judging the pilots was really no challenge. Only one, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau’s Alpha House, starring John Goodman as the lead dog among four GOP Senators sharing a house in the nation’s capital, seemed good enough to land on any cable channel’s schedule (with its cursing, including a cameo by Bill Murray consisting mostly of the f-word, network TV seems an unlikely fit.)

Others, including the second-most popular pilot – a comedy about app developers dubbed Betas – seemed promising. But you’d expect a cheeky comedy about cybersavvy millenials to resonate with people willing to rate untested videos online; does that really reflect whether a series is a good idea?

News about which series have been picked up or rejected has mostly come from the show’s creators; Rhett Reese, co-creator of a pilot based on the cult hit film Zombieland, made headlines last week tweeting that the series “will not be moving forward” and grousing about fans who "successfully hated it out of existence." Deadline Hollywood also reported the next most-criticized pilot, a musical set in a parody of the Huffington Post called Browsers, also wasn’t going forward.

But, since Amazon hasn’t said anything publicly about the results of the process, it’s tough to know if these shows got dropped because their pilots were terrible, fan reaction was negative, their production price tag was too high or some combination of the above.

Experienced critics will note that comedies are most likely to have crappy pilot episodes. The best humor comes from well-formed characters bouncing off each other, and that rarely emerged in a first episode. My roster of classic series which started badly includes Cheers, All in the Family and Seinfeld, all of which had a wobbly start but matured into TV’s best.

Amazon’s tight-lipped behavior is in keeping with the modern stance of rivals such as Netflix, which has avoided giving many viewership details on its buzzed-about first series House of Cards and declined to even give critics an advance look at its reboot of Arrested Development, bowing at 9 a.m. Sunday.

In a business where knowledge literally equals power and profit, the typical yardsticks of ratings and advertiser revenue are shielded from a prying media and public. But it also means we don’t know basic facts; like how many series Amazon might pick up, how long they might run, or how the service ultimately judges success or failure.

A few things are obvious after watching Amazon’s series. They aren’t spending the kind of money Netflix is to create super high-quality shows; these comedies are mostly built around casts of unknowns with a well-known character actor or two tossed in for good measure. They’re comedies, filling a niche a little less traveled by rivals such as YouTube, Netflix and Yahoo.

And too many of them seem to confuse pop culture-friendly premises and cursing for edgy content.

TV networks, for all their focus group testing and experience, have a supremely high failure rate. So giving consumers keys to part of the development process might not be bad.

But, as creators of groundbreaking shows such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy will tell you, success in their universe often boils down to a savvy TV executive following his or her gut to give the audience a series they didn't know they wanted until they saw it.

Can Amazon succeed by outsourcing its gut to users? And what will happen to the TV business if it does?

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 9:57am]


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