TCA Journal No. 7: The Amazon Pilots And the Truth About Crowd Sourcing In TV

Transparent Cast Onstage Golden Globes - H 2015
Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Transparent Cast Onstage Golden Globes - H 2015

I haven't had a chance to review the latest batch of Amazon pilots -- a time-crunch issue being here at the TCA winter press tour where TV that's happening right now takes precedent. It's the first time I haven't been able to dive into their pilots but, given recent trends at Amazon Studios, does it really matter?

I've never thought the crowd-sourcing element that Amazon touted was really an influencing factor in the decision-making process. Not even for a second. It seemed a not-very-surprising on-brand approach ("please rate your purchase in the Amazon Marketplace" etc.) and a way to, at least on the surface, appear to be making television differently than everyone else, even though it wasn't.

But Transparent, Amazon Studio's best series, the one that is a critical darling, appearing on countless Best-of 2014 lists and the show that just won two awards at the Golden Globes, was Amazon's lowest rated pilot from within that batch.

So, the people were wrong. Yet again.

Two days later, Amazon Studios made huge headlines by announcing that it cut a deal with Woody Allen to make his first television series.

Allen's show was what's called "straight-to-series," meaning exactly what it sounds like. He doesn't need to make a pilot that will then be judged on whether it was good enough to pick up, by people who happen to be shopping for hammers or jackets.

Allen's show is a go.

Maybe Amazon Studios should just admit that it doesn't really matter what you think, it will make whatever shows it deems best for the brand, whatever the brand is, or has the best chance to garner awards and thus catch your attention and have you subscribe to Amazon Prime (where you will then be able to watch its shows for "free").

Which is kind of like the HBO and Showtime model, minus the shipping. And it's a model that works best when you don't really have to worry about what people think or how many will watch. And, under Amazon's model, you don't. It's not in the ratings game. So playing this wink-wink game wherein you feel like you're helping choose pilots seems silly.

Network television has been crowd sourcing its pilots via testing for decades and its failure rate has historically been in the 80 percentile.

Which, consulting math geniuses, is apparently not a good number.

Of course, Amazon, which doesn't explain its metrics, might take the analytics generated by the non-pros of the watching word and give that magic, ethereal number a certain weight, but it can't be more than token. Just enough to keep up the illusion that you have control of what gets seen.

I would prefer it if Amazon Studios just said, "We make what we like," but the only content provider that has come close to such a sentiment other than those in the premium cable ranks (HBO, Showtime, Starz) is Netflix. Going on your gut should be, in theory, the way to run your business. Because then you make what you like, not what random people ludicrously assembled as a cross-section of the country tell you to make. History has proven that's a terrible way to make a car, or a TV series.

One of the longest running jokes on press tour is when a network says, "It was our highest testing pilot!" That always gets a laugh in the room because that show is more often than not DOA.

But I know why networks keep audience testing, despite years of failure and reams of analysis that never creates an infallible template that can be duplicated: Fear.

An executive fears trusting his or her gut. Those in pay grades below said executive fear contradicting the opinion of their boss on whether a show is good or not. It's easier to trust -- or lay the blame on -- a test audience. Living in the broadcast network bubble is like living in a haunted house. Everybody's scared witless in there. 

But Amazon is not in that kind of TV business. So, I don't think Amazon Studios is really looking at how its pilots rate with customers in any meaningful way. What I don't really understand is why it pretends to.


Twitter: @BastardMachine