Tim Goodman's TCA Journal No. 6: Decoding Amazon's Baffling TV Strategy

Transparent Wedding - H 2016

The Hollywood Reporter's chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be filing a series of journals from the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, looking at the bigger picture, unspinning the spin or crushing the life out of things.

I remain perplexed by Amazon as a brand.

Not Amazon the online behemoth shopping site. Amazon the emerging player in original content for television. And yes, I understand that the lack of distinction between those two identities is probably the intention — what could be bigger or more familiar than "Amazon" in the minds of consumers?

It's just weird to think that Amazon Studios (hey, there's an idea for branding the content when people go searching for it on the site), which has churned out a lot of critically acclaimed series (Transparent, Catastrophe, Mozart in the Jungle, The Man in the High Castle, etc.), has not only slapped their content with the boring moniker of Prime Video, but even when you weave your way into that area of the astonishingly endless website, its own shows are mashed together with ones it didn't make.

The feeling is, "We put our stuff with this other stuff. It's just more stuff for you to choose."

Again, I don't understand this.

But I have a few hunches about it that are dark and soul-crushing and would make a pretty good movie that could one day end up in the Prime Video area, next to something unrelated and less ominous.

But first, more of this perplexing un-branding of Amazon Studios or, if you prefer, more of this Amazon branding that just so happens to include millions of dollars of content ranging from decent to very good to great, if you happen to stumble on it when ordering socks and stuff.

Amazon Originals is a real thing and it's actually specific in that it echoes what other television content providers call their own work if they also happen to offer up the content of others, i.e. movies from Steven Spielberg or television series from FX. The use of "original" or "original series" pretty clearly says: "Hey, these shows are ours; we made them and they are different from all this other stuff we bought that you can find here as well. We are most proud of our own stuff, which is right here, clearly more prominent than the other stuff. Enjoy."

But the use of "Amazon Originals" as a descriptor seems to be random and — having looked at the site both logged in as a customer and as a temporary visitor whose personal information and browsing history isn't fueling the algorithm — not consistent.

Which basically translates to Amazon not really caring to promote the fact that in addition to being the world's largest online retailer, it's also in the business of making television series. By not underlining that, the brand is failing to influence viewers who are not savvy about the distinction. You can't have brand loyalty to Nike clothing if you only think they make shoes.

It could be argued that Amazon is not really making much effort to promote its television business at all. There are still large segments of people who are otherwise aware, either through Transparent or some other series, that Amazon in fact does make television shows while also being completely unaware that all of that content is free if you pay the $99 a year for Amazon Prime shipping.

Which seems to circle back to the original point: baffling. And seemingly easy to fix. Yet apparently not a high priority.

When Amazon — or Amazon Studios or Amazon Prime Video — came through the TCAs on Sunday, in only its third-ever appearance before us, there were two constants: There was a presentation of the material and panels with the cast; and that presentation was both low-vibe and low-key, with simple things like press releases and premiere dates seeming to be afterthoughts. We got them at the end — information was there if you dug for it.

It struck me yet again that Amazon/Amazon Studios/Amazon Prime Video is neither poorly run nor merely inefficient, but rather its interest in following traditional methods for "selling"/promoting is vastly lower than its competitors.

This is not a crime. It's not done with any kind of dismissiveness. Amazon just operates differently. Yes, kind of like a tech company.

Digital platform competitors Netflix and Hulu act mostly like television channels.

Amazon acts almost uninterested. It's kind of fascinating. No, check that, it's really fascinating. To me, at least.

It has smart executives in Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, head of drama series Morgan Wandell and head of half-hour series Joe Lewis. (Yes, it calls them half-hours, not comedies). If you polled critics and reporters you'd probably learn that most think the three of them act differently than other TV execs (Wandell being most similar to his traditional TV counterparts) but, again, there's not a code or procedure that everyone must follow, so their being different is not breaking a rule.

I think all three are doing a fine job, according to this very simple barometer: I like more of their shows than I dislike. Hell, I even like some of the pilots they don't pick up. Amazon/Amazon Studios/Amazon Prime Video — I will do this until you scream for me to stop or they pick one and stick with it — is by any measure I value doing well.

(And no, as with Netflix and Hulu, I do not care about ratings from Amazon because it's a subscription service. Ad revenue based on those ratings is not the business model.)

On Sunday, returning shows like Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Red Oaks continued to look interesting as they grow; upcoming originals like Good Girls Revolt and Goliath, plus British co-production Fleabag, looked intriguing; and the much-anticipated Woody Allen series Crisis in Six Scenes had its first clips revealed and a premiere date (Sept. 30) announced.

But I would be lying if I said it all didn't seem a bit underwhelming — like Amazon was showing us the goods and thinking, but not saying out loud, "That's what we've got; if you like it great — it'll be available somewhere on the site."

It's weird for me to feel more excited about Amazon shows than Amazon/Amazon Studios/Amazon Originals appears to be.

I'm not talking about the aesthetics of their TCA presentation — I don't care about the food or the swag (but if you're curious, very good effort there!) — just in the overall feel which could be construed as either low-key or shambolic, because I think it's reflective of the overall brand positioning. As in, "We have some stuff you might like" and then the sound of the door closing in the distance as they all get in their cars and go back to work.

Again, not wrong; just different.

And at least as it pertains to the brand, perhaps less effective than it might be. I mean, is there a less panicked group of people in the hyper-competitive Platinum Age of Television than Amazon, which is as likely to tell you it has USA's Mr. Robot or FX's The Americans streaming as it is to push all of its originals into your face?

It certainly makes me think people paying for Amazon Prime is the, um, prime objective for shopping customers — which it is; I'm not naive. But should the original television content be a surprise bonus feature you stumble on by accident?

It just seems like Amazon should be proud enough of Amazon Studios to really promote the hell out of its Amazon Originals and not forsake the work to some vague catch-all called Amazon Prime Video, whatever the hell that is.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine