Will you go Prime? That's a question of increasing importance for Amazon Studios as its second original television series, "Betas," gets underway.
The show, which premiered last month and continues to roll out new episodes on Fridays, is about a group of young Silicon Valley strivers working to create the next big tech sensation. The first three episodes of the half-hour comedy were free.
FOR THE RECORD:
Amazon Studios: An article about Amazon Studios in the Dec. 15 Calendar section misidentified Joe Lewis as Amazon's programming chief. He is head of comedy series development.
Viewers who wish to watch additional episodes will need to sign up for Amazon Prime, which costs $79 a year and offers a grab bag of benefits including free two-day shipping on items purchased on the site, unlimited streaming of more than 40,000 movies and TV shows and more than 350,000 Kindle titles. (The company is tight-lipped about subscription numbers, so only Amazon will know if its original programming is driving customers to Prime.)
In April, Amazon posted 14 pilots online, including "Betas," and let viewers rate them in order to help pick which ones to bring to series. It's a nerve-racking process for creators and prompted some critics to accuse the company of making television by committee. But the populist strategy also is shaking up the standard network and cable paradigms as Amazon takes aim at muscular online competitors such as Hulu and Netflix.
"They had a lot of confidence that they would be able to sell content to their customers the same way that they sell products," says "Betas" executive producer Michael London. "A lot of humility that it wouldn't be easy or quick and a lot of conviction that if they gave their creators freedom that they would end up with top-notch programming."
"Betas" has earned four out of five possible stars on Amazon as rated by more than 2,000 customer reviews. The plot features best friends Trey (Joe Dinicol) and Nash (Karan Soni), who are creating a next-level social networking app with friends Mitchell (Charlie Saxton) and Hobbes (Jon Daly). When they gain the help of an outsized tech entrepreneur (Ed Begley Jr.), life in Silicon Valley heats up in unexpected ways.
"The whole idea of watching things on the Internet is that it's the easiest way to find your audience," says Dinicol. "You don't have to sit down at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday to watch 'Betas,' you can watch it whenever you want."
Still, "Betas" and Amazon's first scripted series, "Alpha House," which was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Garry Trudeau and stars John Goodman, hasn't gained the name recognition of Netflix heavy hitters "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black."
Not helping matters is the potential brand confusion being generated by marrying a massive retail operation with an online entertainment production company, say industry experts.
"When you read the reviews for a pair of shorts, you don't care how many people have bought that product," says James McQuivey, a media analyst with Forrester Research. "But with TV it's absolutely essential that you know that you're watching the same thing that 8 million other people have watched — because TV is a community experience."
And Amazon faces stiff competition for paying customers who can survey an ever-growing list of entertainment providers on television and the Web, they add.
"That's one of the problems with this new platform," says London of the new era of high-quality Web TV. "At what point do people feel inundated by too many options?"
Not any time soon, says Amazon's head of comedy series development, Joe Lewis, who is hoping to slowly and steadily walk the company's grand new gamble straight to the bank.
"There's an economy of attention right now, people only have so many hours in the day," says Lewis. "Platforms that thrive respond to what people want, which is watching high-quality programming any time, anywhere and for as cheap as possible."