There is no shortage of platforms to choose from if you're looking to dump your cable box. Netflix, Hulu, Crackle and the on-demand opportunities available for premium cable apps make finding quality content easier than ever. But which is the most worthy of your tube-time and your money?
Amazon Instant Video made its case this week by announcing seven new TV pilot shows that will launch in 2015. Amazon's fourth pilot season will include Cocked, from Lie to Me creator Sam Baum, a dark comedy about family starring Sam Trammell (True Blood). The Man in The High Castle is an hour-long drama based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name. Set in an alternate reality just after World War II, it stars Rufus Sewell (The 11th Hour) and Alexa Davalos (Mob City). From comedy to drama, Amazon's offerings are expansive. Particularly demonstrative of the diverse programming is The New Yorker Presents. This half-hour "docuseries" is comprised of several different segments. One is a short film starring Alan Cumming (The Good Wife), another is directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs).
Amazon already offers a tremendous volume of programming for Prime subscribers, but the addition of these new shows makes it a more serious contender than ever before. Previous years have already given us hit shows like the gender-identity dramedy Transparent.
This is where Amazon seeks to distinguish itself, with subtle gimmicks like its viewer-based voting system for selecting its lineup of original programs from a slate of pilot shows.
You could make the argument that Amazon's process -- releasing pilots for its members to view and vote on -- works well. Transparent, its new original series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a more-than-middle-aged male-to-female transsexual, has already received great acclaim and has been approved for a second season. In October, Amazon announced that two of its original pilots, Red Oaks and Hand of God, would debut in 2015 with their first full seasons. These shows were selected, Amazon says, in large part because of the viewers' votes.
Your View Matters — Somewhat
As one of those viewers, I appreciate being consulted. It makes me feel like my $99/year Amazon Prime membership is being put to good use. Amazon's green-lighting process relies explicitly on its viewers' feedback, or at least, that's the idea. But, once the pilots up for consideration are made available, the egalitarian concept is more an implied theoretical than it is practical.
That could be a deliberate move on Amazon's part to make its studios' concept of viewer-selected serials seem more like the real deal and less like an advertorial gimmick designed to bolster views. But it also means that while viewers' input on each offering is a critical factor, it's not the deciding one.
It's a relatively new (and excellent) thing as a consumer of media content to have your voice and opinions recognized by those making the shows we're watching. But if the creators of everything we watched listened to everything we, the audience, had to say, we'd be presented with something totally packed to the gills and ultimately void of substance. Network shows like ABC's Once Upon a Time and the CW's The Vampire Diaries give the appearance of trying desperately to keep their fans (now intensely vocal on social media) satisfied, an endeavor that allows the quality of the shows to become immensely confused and hampered.
Despite the outward appearance of radical innovation, Amazon Studios is following the established strategy of studying and learning from its rivals.
While Amazon's new additions, Red Oaks and Hand of God, are vastly different shows, they share elements with other critically acclaimed and successful shows. Hand of God stars Ron Perlman as a judge bent on seeking to avenge his wronged family. It utilizes the popular prestige trope of the man in crisis. We've seen it before in The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. We're still seeing it today on shows like Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire.
Red Oaks is a coming-of-age comedy set in a country club. It relies on elements of the workplace drama that you'd see on The Mindy Project today, and even more so on the outsider culture popularized by shows like Freaks and Geeks. Both shows indicate that Amazon has every intention of moving forward as a powerhouse studio to rival the likes of HBO — and now also Netflix — regardless of whether or not we as the viewers get our paltry say.
Executives and creatives should continue to give us, the viewers, a chance to let them know which shows we think are viable, just as Amazon is doing now. It's valuable input for them. But we should not get the deciding vote. Having no viewer-based voting in place hasn't hurt Netflix and it certainly hasn’t hurt HBO — the rivals that Amazon is learning from and challenging for our couch time.