I’ve been devouring these two new shows on Amazon Prime Video, Betas and Alpha House. I say “devouring” but that’s probably not the right word — more on that in a second. Just quick backstory: Betas is about an app launch in the Bay Area and talks about things like angel investors, the Mission, Snapchat, beta testing, incubators, etc. Alpha House is about four Republican Senators living together in D.C. (loosely based on this idea), with three of them facing stiff primary challenges (from further-right Republicans) in their home states. Betas is pretty much all people you wouldn’t recognize, save for Ed Begley Jr. (as the angel investor) and one of the daughters from The Nanny. On the flip side, Alpha House has John Goodman, Clark Johnson (from The Wire), Mark Consuelos, and Cynthia Nixon, among others; it’s produced by Garry Trudeau, who is famous for “Doonesbury.” (I’m not sure if you’re supposed to ital cartoons or whatever, so sue me.)
So the casting models of the shows was a bit different, but let’s talk more broadly about the entertainment model. Here’s the basic thing: Amazon pays about $1 billion a year to stream the content of others via Prime, sooooo… much like Netflix and Hulu and others, they decide to create their own content to supplement that. Difference is, Amazon crowd-sourced the shows. They greenlit the production of six pilots, posted them to Amazon, and essentially had voting determine what got made into a show. The content they’re receiving is pretty strong, although it’s probably too early to determine the success of the business model. The idea makes a lot of logical sense on surface, though: Amazon has a very strong user base, they know what they like, and they can basically “upvote” (sorry to mix terms there) to see what gets produced. It makes the customers into the king-makers, in a way; that’s likely a business opportunity.
You can read about Alpha House all over the Internet, including here, here and here. You can read about Betas all over too, including here, here, and here. First, my two cents — provided anyone cares. Alpha House is a better show than Betas. Part of that is because it has more recognizable names, and part of it is because it has funny moments, and the funny moments are directly tied back to things happening in the news right now. That’s one of the pros of Betas too; they reference actual companies that just bought, etc. The downside of Betas, which you’ll see in most reviews, is that it tries too hard to be cool and very SF-ish. The downside of Alpha House is that a lot of the situations seem contrived — more things that comedy actors would be doing as opposed to U.S. Senators. CNET has suggested that Netflix is in another league. I’m not entirely sure — the gold standard for Netflix is probably House of Cards, which is an excellent show (although generally somewhat implausible too, in that the Whip killed someone). I think part of the reason that people perceive House of Cards to be a big deal is because it entered with big names. With the exception of maybe Modern Family (which had Al Bundy on it), I can’t think of a show that popped big in the last decade with all no-names (don’t say Big Bang Theory, as people knew both Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki, at least somewhat). Spacey and Wright are excellent actors, and that definitely drives House of Cards (Mara too), but … them having big names is a built-in marketing thing. It’s much harder to sell a show with lesser-known people. If you didn’t have Goodman on Alpha House and were selling it as “Kelly Ripa’s husband and that guy who was a newspaper editor in Season 5 of The Wire,” that might be tougher. Big names do help. I guess the flip side of that argument is Orange is the New Black, which has maybe two or three well-known names (Biggs, Prepon, maybe Pornstache, who has been on The Wire) and does quite well.
The other difference besides the crowd-sourcing is the “binge model.” Netflix releases everything at once — for example, Lillyhammer (which I haven’t watched) Season 2 is out now, and all of House of Cards Season 2 will be out on Valentine’s Day (awkward, given the Spacey-Wright marriage in that show). Amazon released the first three of Betas and Alpha House all at once, and then the next ones come one at a time (usually on Fridays), like an actual TV show. They seem to want you to leave your house instead of binge-watching, even though binge-watching is the cultural norm of the moment. On this front, I’m torn. I actually think Amazon’s model is better because it prevents the 12-in-a-row situation that can doom your health and socialization skills, but at the same time, I got caught up to Breaking Bad before the final eight precisely because of that model (I got in a minor car accident at around 11am on a Sunday this summer, came home, couldn’t do much about the car because it was Sunday, and proceeded to watch about nine episodes of Season 4 BB for the rest of the day). Interestingly, while the online model of the moment is “binge vs. release like a TV show,” the actual TV show model of the moment seems to be “string out seasons into two parts in entirely different calendar years.” (That could be, at some level, TV’s reaction to its fear of eroding as a medium over the next 30 years.)
The exact viewership numbers for some of these streaming shows are hard to come by, but Orange is the New Black had an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, while House of Cards was at 81 percent. Alpha House is in the 70s and Betas is around 80. Just for contrast, Breaking Bad is at about 100, as is Mad Men. Admittedly that’s not the most scientific way to do things, but it’s one way of looking at fan reaction to some of these shows.
Overall, I think that if we could continue to develop excellent content to be consumed by people as a break in their lives, and if we could do it in a way that was democratic and not based on 2 or 3 hit-makers, that would be great. The development of any new content has long been based on getting seen by the right people. There are some amazing blogs and games and scripts and even tweets and Tumblrs out there that no one sees because we live in a saturated, crowded space when it comes to the screens in front of us — so if this Amazon model can ultimately help shift that back to the masses controlling what the masses watch (just like they helped the masses order what the masses wanted to order), that’s a really good thing.