Winds of change are sweeping through the television landscape, to the point where there are a growing amount of TV shows that aren't even available on TV networks. With the advent of Netflix's push into original programming (House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, and the upcoming season of Arrested Development), everyone wants their own piece of the TV pie, even XBox. However, the most intriguing wrinkle in this new age of television is the dearth of new shows coming out of Amazon Studios.
You have likely heard about the Zombieland pilot on Amazon, created by the screenwriters of the hit 2009 horror-comedy Zombieland, but what you might not know is there are 13 other pilots that have been produced through Amazon Studios, six children's shows and eight "primetime" comedies. I put primetime in quotes because that archane term doesn't even apply to this model. You won't have to tune in between 8 PM and 11 PM (ET) to watch these shows, the ones that will move forward to series. All you will have to do is log on to Amazon and watch at your leisure. That's not even the best part, though.
The 14 pilots were available for anyone to watch for free and, more importantly, rate them for one month, between April 19 and May 19. Why does this matter? Because those user ratings will help Amazon determine whether or not to issue series orders for these shows. That's right, YOU, the viewer, actually hold some semblance of power over what will and will not be shown on Amazon.
What's more, anyone who has a pilot script that fits within Amazon's guidelines (they are currently only seeking primetime comedies and children's shows), can submit their shows for consideration. Several of the pilots that were produced do come from established names (Zombieland's Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; Alpha House's Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip), but there are also some that come from first-timers, such as Those Who Can't creators Adam Cayton-Holland and Andrew Ovredahl.
Last month, we reported that Amazon Studios ordered the primetime comedies Alpha House (a political comedy starring John Goodman about four U.S. Senators who share a house together) and Betas (a Silicon Valley-set comedy about four friends trying to get a new app off the ground) were given series orders, along with children's programs Annebots, Creative Galaxy and Tumbleaf, all of which will debut on Amazon Prime in 2014. Personally, I'm somewhat sad that my two favorites out of the primetime comedies, Those Who Can't and Dark Minions, were not picked up, but still, this format could truly revolutionize the industry.
I believe this format is a wake-up call with reverberations that will be felt throughout the TV landscape. It might not happen tomorrow, next month, or in three years, but if Amazon finds success with this model, the Big 4 and all of the cable channels may have to rethink the way they do business. It is with this in mind, that I present to you the four things TV networks can learn from Amazon Studios.
1Bring the Power Back To the People
How many times have you seen the trailer for a new show and thought, 'How did this shit get made?' I know I have, on more than a few occasions (*cough* Work It *cough*). Sadly, despite the rapid advancement of technology, that would easily make it possible for anyone and everyone who wants to watch a pilot, the long-winded process of a show making it to your television screen hasn't really changed that much since the inception of the format. Right now, as I type these words, there are scores of pilots that are being sent out to members of the TV press corps, after the networks have set their schedules. Why not let US watch the pilots early, and have OUR responses gauge what makes it on the air, instead of the usual network guesswork?
It's become abundantly clear, lately, that shows which start off with low ratings, typically never last very long. Earlier this year, Do No Harm was cancelled by NBC after just two episodes. If you don't start big, you'll be off the air quicker than a Kardashian marriage, much quicker. This wasn't always the case. In fact, NBC was dangerously close to canceling Seinfeld after its first (few) season(s), but, ultimately, the network continued to show its faith in the show, resulting in one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. Now, mind you, lackluster pilots may turn into great TV shows, and vice versa. There's no concrete way to predict what will be popular. At the same time, how hard would it be to make every pilot available online, for everyone to watch and rate themselves?
If you cut through all the bullshit, it's really all about the viewer. CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and the cable networks all want that viewer, that person who is willing to kick back at the end of the day and watch whatever show they have to offer. The networks want that, they need that. So, what boggles my mind is, why aren't they asking US what we want to watch? How hard would it be to set aside a few days or a week for those who are willing to participate in TV programming history, to put the pilots online? I would like to hope that the response to such an experiment would be overwhelming, but I'm not sure we'll ever find out...
2Bigger Is Not Always Better...
Look, I love Game of Thrones, and Revolution, and many other shows that costs millions of dollars per episode to produce. However, there are shows such as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the pilot of which was produced for less than $200. It is not clear how much Amazon Studios spent on each of these 14 pilots, but I'd be willing to bet that they spent around the same amount, combined, as HBO spent on the pilot for Game of Thrones, which reportedly cost between $5 and $10 million. Big money does not always equal big ratings. Shows like Modern Family and (sadly) The Big Bang Theory (sorry, I've tried to watch it, but I'm really, REALLY not a fan), prove that you don't need to drop tons of cash to bring in tons of viewers. While it remains to be seen how well these Amazon Studios shows fare, none of them look like they broke the bank, while still managing to attract big-name talent like John Goodman (Alpha House) and Jeffrey Tambor (Onion News Empire), just to name a few.
3Get Your Schedules Straight
There are 36 weeks between Labor Day and Memorial Day, which is essentially where the standard network TV season falls between. Since most network shows run anywhere between 22 and 24-episode seasons, this leaves a lot of down time, including breaks for holidays, major sporting events which take precedent (i.e. Super Bowl, World Series), award shows, and more. What's getting frustrating, to me, these days, is the extended hiatuses many networks give these shows, mainly to ensure they will end during the lucrative Sweeps period.
Take NBC's new hit drama series Revolution. The show, executive produced by TV heavyweights J.J. Abrams and Eric Kripke (Supernatural), premiered with great numbers for NBC in mid-September, and, along with reality powerhouse The Voice, lead NBC to its first November sweeps win since 2003. Awesome, right? However, if you're a fan of Revolution, you had to wait through a BIG four-month hiatus between fall and spring, which magically coincided with ratings juggernaut The Voice's return. It seems that they were scared that Revolution would not put up big numbers without that coveted lead-in from The Voice. Honestly, they're probably right, but still, a four-month hiatus in the middle of your first season is borderline ridiculous.
TV fanatics are likely used to these breaks by now. But, with binge viewing DVR/VOD tendencies developing within the small-screen zeitgeist, it seems silly for networks to want viewers to tune in every week, when they take such long breaks during the season, and honestly, the average John and Jane Q. Public likely don't know when these breaks are actually happening.
Now, with all that being said, it isn't immediately clear how Amazon intends to air the programs that will be greenlit to series. Since they don't have any of that primetime Sweeps nonsense to worry about, I would venture a guess that they will stick with the all-at-once Netflix model, where the full season is available immediately for your consumption. Still, it's high time that networks and advertisers get with the times, so to speak, which brings me to my final point...
4It's Time For An Upgrade, Nielsen
You have likely heard of the Nielsen ratings system before, no matter how much TV you do or don't watch. But, do you know how it works? Before every TV season, Nielsen selects families at random to participate. Approximately 5,000 families are chosen for the "national people meter" sample, and an additional 20,000 families are chosen for their local meters. There are also more than 1 million homes who fill out paper diaries during the sweeps periods (November, February, May, and July). So, basically, 1.025 million households are representing the 114.2 million households in the U.S. that have television. Why do so few represent so many? Here's a quote from Nielsen's official website, which is as antiquated as they come.
"We cannot ask every home to participate, so we carefully select a sample of homes in your community to represent the entire TV audience. To be statistically accurate, it is essential that our samples be randomly selected. Every household in the U.S. has a chance of being selected, no matter where it is located."
What I don't get is, why can't you ask every home to participate? After the conversion from analog to digital back in 2009, literally every home in the country has to have some sort of set-top box to watch TV, whether it be from your cable provider or that analog-to-digital converter box. Would it really be that hard to put some kind of chip in these boxes, so that every viewer who wants to be counted, can be counted? Due to the secretive and random nature of Nielsen's families, I honestly don't know if it would be that hard or not, but in this technological day and age, there has to be a way where every TV viewer is counted, not just an average from a random sample of 1.025 million homes.
While Netflix hasn't released any actual numbers in regards to how many people watched House of Cards, they did announce that it was the most-viewed show of all time on the streaming service, just two weeks after the entire first season was made available. As for Amazon, since they haven't officially greenlit any shows yet, it remains to be seen how their programs will be metered, but, simply due to the nature of internet viewing, every click, every video view, will be counted, in some way, whether it's made public or not.
I don't have a Nielsen ratings box in my "household," so nobody knows that I watch Revolution on Monday's, or New Girl on Tuesday's or The Americans on Wednesday's. However, many times, due to the nature of my job, I can't watch these programs live. If I watch any of these shows on VOD through my cable box, a little check box comes up on each episode I watch. Why can't these "check boxes" be figured into the national Nielsen numbers, whether it be VOD viewing or, most importantly, live viewing? Hasn't technology come far enough where every voice that wants to be heard, can be heard, especially in a time when just a few ratings points either way can mean the difference between cancellation and renewal?
What do YOU have to say about these points? Do you agree? Disagree? Hate the way I ask multiple questions in a row? Let your voice be heard in the comments below, and by following me on Twitter @GallagherMW.