Amazon is throwing the lid off TV's pilot process. As it looks to join rival Netflix in the original series game, the online retailer has just posted pilot episodes of six sitcoms, two animated comedies and six children's cartoons. Amazon will then gauge audience reaction before making series orders.
Pilots are usually screened in network boardrooms and closed-door focus groups. But in an extensive interview with TV Guide Magazine, Amazon Studios director Roy Price says he wanted to make the service's selection process transparent for U.S., U.K. and (soon) Germany audiences.
Amazon decided to stick with comedies for its initial series development crop, including Alpha House, starring John Goodman and Mark Consuelos as part of a group of senators living together in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Tambor is the egomaniacal anchor on Onion News Empire, a satirical look inside a cable news operation. Zombieland is the TV adaptation of the cult hit movie. Ed Begley Jr. stars in the Silicon Valley-set Betas. Bebe Neuwirth leads the cast of the musical comedy Browsers.
How's it going to work? Here's a transcript of our talk with Price:
TV Guide Magazine: Now that they're online, what's next? When will you make a decision?
They'll be on the site for at least a month. One month after they're up we'll sift through the data. It will be a quite diverse source of feedback. You have simple metrics like how many people watched it and reviewed it, what their average rating was and what the reviews said substantively. You also have offline focus groups. We have an online panel recruited from big Amazon movie and TV customers called Amazon Preview, where they'll give more in-depth feedback. There's going to be a lot of data and a fair amount of work.
TV Guide Magazine: How many of these pilots can go to series?
I'd say we certainly want at least one of each type of show, a comedy and a kids show, but it could be more than that. And it's not just winner-take-all. It could be a couple of each kind.
TV Guide Magazine: Once the new series go into production, when can they premiere?
The different shows take different lengths of time to produce, since some are animated. We'll figure out which ones to order and then look at the production schedule. Then we'll decide whether we want to premiere the new shows at the same time or maybe premiere one show and wait weeks to premiere another.
TV Guide Magazine: What do you make of Netflix's strategy of posting an entire season at once?
In order to do that, you have to withhold the show from customers for a considerable amount of time until you accumulate enough episodes. Some people say it maximizes customer choice to put them up all at once, but I kind of think it's the opposite. While you're saving up all the shows, no one has the opportunity to see it.
TV Guide Magazine: How often will you develop pilots? Twice a year?
We're developing new scripts now for the next round of pilots. I'm not sure exactly when we will order them, but there will be a future round. And the scripts we're working on now are a little more diverse from a genre point of view. The next round we'll have a mix of comedies and dramas.
TV Guide Magazine: Why focus solely on comedy during this first round?
You have to start somewhere. And it helps to focus a little bit. You want to get people who really know all the directors and writers in a particular area. It's easier to specialize.
TV Guide Magazine: Why screen the pilots this way?
The traditional process relies heavily on gut instinct. There's something to that, but if you could really get all of your pilots out in front of all of your customers, that would give you the best answer. Often real game-changing shows defy conventional wisdom. We have a ton of people who love movies and TV coming to Amazon every day. They love to share their opinions. So it just seemed natural to reach out to our customers. If we owned a restaurant we'd try things out on the menu, we wouldn't just cook them in the kitchen and sample them ourselves.
TV Guide Magazine: Most pilots are tested with small focus groups. Does this mean you'll have a lot more data at your fingertips?
It will not as simple as American Idol where whomever gets the most texts or votes wins. You've got to pay attention to the people who have a real passion for a show. In the on-demand environment, that's what matters. People have to reach out for the show.
TV Guide Magazine: Is this going to turn into a popularity contest, with producers and stars campaigning for their pilots?
I encourage people to stir up their fans and bring them to the site. Those are the people we want sampling the pilots.
TV Guide Magazine: Why these shows? How did this first crop come to be?
We want to create opportunities for people to explore ideas that maybe they haven't been able to do in conventional television. David Javerbaum wanted to do a musical comedy (Browsers) set in a workplace. With Alpha House you get to go deep inside the Washington environment that [creator] Garry Trudeau knows so well and not be constrained by anything. In some way each show is trying to do something really interesting.
TV Guide Magazine: You're adapting Zombieland; any chance of reviving canceled fan favorites?
We're totally open to license or redevelop or whatever the model is. Our only goal is to have great shows for customers. Everything else is open. But most dead shows are dead for a reason.
TV Guide Magazine: You've been pretty aggressive for your first year out, given the amount of projects you've developed and the talent you've attracted. How did it go?
People that have a lot of options and are established in their careers make a lot of their choices based on the material. Do they find it compelling and think it can be a great show? It was terrific to attract John Goodman, Bebe Neuwirth, Jeffrey Tambor, Ed Begley. That was a great first step to putting the pilots together.
TV Guide Magazine: Those are established actors like that who are used to the network system. Did they have reservations about doing shows for this new platform?
I think they get it now. There may have been some concerns at the start. I think John Goodman was quoted as being concerned that he was getting into some YouTube video. But then he showed up on set and saw that it was a first-class show.
TV Guide Magazine: Why did you cast and produce these pilots during network pilot season, when competition for talent is fierce?
That was not intentional. That's just the way it worked out. I guess if we had really planned it by the calendar then maybe going off cycle would have been a good idea. Maybe we'll try that in the future.
TV Guide Magazine: Tell me why you entered the kids space.
Parents of younger children really value high quality kids content. We sat down with Dr. Alice Wilder, who's an authority on entertainment and education for kids, and fashioned an educational curriculum that could fit within highly entertaining shows. We worked with innovative creators like Henson and I think we've come up with a really strong special lineup focusing on kids 2-5.
TV Guide Magazine: How should TV critics review these pilots?
I'm curious to see how or the extent to which people will review the individual shows, whether they'll do it as a roundup or if they'll only review their favorite ones. I hope there are reviews. These are big shows with big people and I hope people will take them seriously that way.
TV Guide Magazine: So Onion News Empire could be considered a satire of The Newsroom, Zombieland travels in the same space as The Walking Dead but with humor, and Alpha House might be seen as the comedy version of House of Cards.
That's our strategy. We have to develop Breaking Bad but funny.