Amazon Is Producing Sitcoms, But TV Networks Shouldn’t Be Laughing

on December 21 2012 5:25 PM
Amazon To Hire 50,000 Seasonal Workers For Holiday Season
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Many have tried -- and failed -- to create a born-on-the-Web television show that can compete in the same weight class as a broadcast or cable series. Edward Zwick’s “Quarterlife,” back in 2007, was one of the first, but it died a quick death despite being briefly picked up by NBC.

More recently, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX), Hulu and even YouTube (Nasdaq: GOOG) have thrown their hats into the content-creation arena, but none have proved that Internet-made video has much of a shelf-life beyond viral short-form laughers.

All of those companies, however, have one major strike against them. They’re not Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN). And if somewhere there exists an Internet behemoth can beat Hollywood at its own game, it’s the one run by Jeff Bezos, who hasn’t earned the nickname “The Great Disruptor” for nothing. 

On Thursday, Amazon announced that it is producing six comedy pilots courtesy of its newly created Amazon Studios. The pilot ideas were solicited through an online audition, which branded the project as a kind of crowdsourcing initiative that would give everyday folk the chance to create their own TV shows. Such a promise is consistent with Amazon’s purported dedication to the DIY ethos, as seen though its massively successful self-publishing ecosphere, where any author can publish a book through Amazon’s CreateSpace, sell it on Amazon.com and read it on Amazon’s Kindle.   

But as the winners of Amazon’s pilot contest were announced this week, the roster sounded less like an amateur variety hour and more like the fall lineup at one of the Big Four broadcasters. According to a statement by Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios, Amazon received more than 2,000 proposals for pilots. But of all six pilots selected, only one was created by a non-professional. The others are all products of showbiz veterans, some of whom have worked on hit shows such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “30 Rock” and “The Daily Show.” One pilot was created by Garry Trudeau, of “Doonesbury” fame, and another came courtesy of professional satirists from The Onion.

Amazon plans to post its six winning pilots on its Instant Video platform, where users will be able to offer feedback on which ones deserve to be greenlit for a full-blown series. Those that are picked up will be available exclusively to Amazon Prime subscribers.

To be certain, it’s in Amazon’s best interests to produce video content of the highest possible quality. In its attempt to compete with Netflix, the company has to prove that its Instant Video platform is more than just a library of Hollywood offerings. Cable television went through a similar shift a few decades ago. Whereas HBO once profited exclusively off the backs of second-run movies, it ultimately realized that it had to offer quality, exclusive content if it wanted to prevent the erosion of its subscriber base. Fast-forward to today and it’s accepted as a given that the most critically acclaimed dramatic entertainment originates on cable networks -- and broadcast TV is still trying to catch up.

For traditional TV producers, of course, the notion of Amazon encroaching on their turf is only hypothetical, but the potential for Bezos-like disruption in the long term is still evident in Amazon’s past business strategy. When the company emerged as an omnipotent book retailer, it used that power to squeeze publishing companies into submitting to its lowball price points. And as it has ventured into its own publishing efforts -- inking deals directly with big-name authors, in some cases -- critics are charging Amazon with plotting to eliminate publishers altogether.

That Amazon could unleash similar chaos in the entertainment business seems farfetched, at least for now. But then a world without bookstores once seemed unlikely, too. If Jeff Bezos has a secret plan to turn Amazon into Hollywood Northwest, it just might be possible.   

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