“House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” have owned the streaming spotlight in recent months, but a new original series from Amazon could be the next item on everyone’s binge-watch list.
“Transparent,” a 10-episode series that will be released on Amazon Prime Video, has been heralded by critics as a must-watch “groundbreaking show.” Created by Jill Soloway ("United States of Tara," "Six Feet Under"), the series follows a Los Angeles family whose father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) reveals that he is transgender to his three adult children.
“While ‘Orange is the New Black’ brought trans awareness and discussions into the mainstream, it wasn't a series fully dedicated to the subject matter, and that's where ‘Transparent’ can prove truly monumental,” Erin Whitney, associate entertainment editor for Huffington Post, wrote in her article about the new show. Vulture’s Margaret Lyons called the first episode, “my favorite pilot in years, and by a lot.”
“You could confidently put it up against the best HBO or Showtime half-hour pilots of recent years,” Time Magazine wrote.
“Transparent” is among five new original series Amazon is rolling out in the coming months. The original shows are a long way from Amazon Prime Video’s beginnings in 2011 where the service had about 5,000 titles in its library compared with more than 40,000 today. The subscription service is tied to Amazon Prime, a $99 annual membership that allows consumers to receive free two-day shipping on certain products and unlimited access to its TV and movie library.
While Netflix still remains the big name in the streaming business, data shows that users are open to other brands.
Amazon does not disclose numbers related to Amazon Prime, but Ben Schachter at Macquarie estimated the service has at least 20 million users, which would put it in second place after Netflix, with more than 35 million subscribers. A Parks Associates survey in May showed that 20 percent of U.S. household subscribe to Amazon Prime Video, and the service has surpassed other streaming services including Hulu Plus.
“Amazon is certainly getting traction in the market — especially when compared against Hulu Plus,” Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates, said in a statement. "Amazon's growth shows how dynamic the OTT [over-the-top content] space truly is. While Netflix remains the dominant player, consumers are still open to alternatives with interesting content and business models."
Netflix’s original content like “House of Cards and “Orange is the New Black” has given the streaming service an added source of revenue and credibility. Not only did Netflix make more than $1 billion last quarter, but “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” were nominated for a combined 31 Emmy Awards.
Amazon attempted to follow that model in 2013 when it launched two original shows of its own, “Alpha House” and “Betas,” but both struggled to receive attention or critical acclaim. The recent buzz surrounding “Transparent,” its four other original pilots and the fact that Amazon announced plans to invest $100 million into original content for its third quarter in 2014, could give the e-commerce giant the boost it needs to compete with Netflix.
Amazon’s foray into the original content world is one of several moves it has made to counter Netflix’s dominance of the streaming market.
Back in 1999, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos offered to buy Netflix for as much as $12 million – an offer that CEO Reed Hastings refused, according to Gina Keating, author of “Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs.” Since then, the two companies have been waging a cold war in the streaming world despite reported conversation between their owner-“frenemies” to try to peacefully co-exist.
One of Amazon’s first coups was signing a deal in 2012 with pay cable channel Epix, seducing Epix away from a previous ended exclusivity agreement with Netflix. The company, which is co-owned by MGM, Lionsgate and Paramount's corporate parent company Viacom Inc., gave Amazon rights to blockbuster hits like "The Transformers," "Hunger Games," "The Avengers" and "Paranormal Activity." News of the deal led Netflix shares to drop as much as 11 percent, Reuters reported.
In Jan. 2013, Netflix dropped content from television network A&E. Amazon didn’t waste time getting exclusive rights to its content. At the time, the deal represented another turning point for the nascent streaming side of the e-commerce giant.
“In a year we have more than doubled the Prime Instant Video selection for our Prime members,” Brad Beale, director of Digital Video Content Acquisition for Amazon, said at the time.
This past April, Amazon snatched exclusive rights for all eight seasons of Fox’s “24” away from Netflix, whose rights expired on April 1.The same month, Amazon signed an exclusive contract with HBO that will allow its subscribers to stream “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and “The Wire.” Newer shows such as “Girls,” “Newsroom” and “Veep” will be made available about three years after episodes first air. HBO GO, the network’s streaming service, will also be made available on Amazon’s Fire TV platform.
At the time, a Morgan Stanley survey revealed that 17 percent of consumers felt Netflix offered the best original programming, “second only to HBO.” But the news of the Amazon-HBO deal led shareholders to lose faith in the company. Netflix stock dropped 8 percent and was down 25 percent from its all-time high it reached in March.
Still, numbers show Amazon has a long way to go to beat Netflix. The Parks Associates reports shows that roughly 50 percent to 60 percent of U.S. households subscribe to Netflix and the service accounts for more than half of streaming content worldwide.