This is not how TV is done. And it may not be the future of television, any more than American Idol disrupted the music industry. But it is no longer possible to write off programming that bypasses Hollywood as faddish, a fluke or marginal. A tech company whose expertise is in retail has jumped to the front of the line in the TV business. It is using a core digital era concept — crowdsourcing — to produce high-quality fare that would never (and perhaps should never; more on that later) be on traditional TV.
Amazon is pressing its advantages, not the least of which is CEO Jeff Bezos' signature experimentation style, to push into another unlikely area. Thought cloud computing didn't fit the Amazon mold? Welcome to Hollywood Northwest, a magical place where misfit toys that would have never been given a shot at an audience sail over the rainbow into every living room and mobile device on the planet.
Orange may be the new black, to paraphrase the title of the hit
ShowtimeNetflix series. Showtime, HBO, and other premium services have long since broken the lock that broadcast networks used to have on programming that won Emmys and Golden Globes and those bestowed by the various creative guilds.
Amazon's success is disruption of a different order. It very nearly bypasses the Hollywood business community entirely (Amazon partners with Warner Bros. on movies, but with no studio for series). But it taps right into the Hollywood creative community, giving established actors new places to flex and unknowns somewhere to build a resume on a show whose title doesn't include the initials "CSI" or "NCIS." And by tapping a future audience as vetters it increases the odds that what it does produce will find an audience and critical acclaim.
Transparent, a critical favorite, got all that via Amazon's transparent process. But imagine the odds: It is only one of the first 10 series Amazon has greenlit in a program that began in April 2013. It is the first Amazon Studios series to be nominated for Globes, and it won two, including Best Actor for Jeffrey Tambor.
In a moving acceptance speech, Tambor declared Amazon "my new best friend." That's an actor expressing unabashed love for a studio. Google precedents for that and get back to me. Bonus points if you find one involving Sony. Kevin Spacey won the other Best Actor Award, for drama, as star of House of Cards. The fact that series comes from yesterday's upstart, Netflix, seems almost passé.
And how about us, the audience? The subject matter of Transparent may not be your cup of tea — you might even be offended. But the program is as ignorable as can be. That's actually the biggest challenge Amazon might face. If you're like me, you are only vaguely aware of the streaming offerings that come with your Amazon Prime membership. Huge awards like this one should help out with that, a lot, while controversial productions remain small targets.
TV should be more like theater, I argued a couple of years ago: It should happen when it happens for only as long as it happens. Traditional TV has time slots that must be filled. The available space — supply — dictates the demand, which is not a formula for quality. What the upstarts are doing is searching for quality and then staging it if they find it.
It's already a big bet. CNBC reports that Netflix spent $3 billion on
originalprogramming last year, and Amazon $2 billion. They measure success differently from traditional studios — indeed, how many people have even seen Transparent or House of Cards is not public knowledge. They don't depend on third-party advertising, but serve as ads for the companies which produce them.
But they are producing theater — limited run productions that hue to the vision of the creator — which happens to be staged on a video stream. If you're Chuck Lorre, with four hit series on the air, maybe you don't care too much. But even Chuck Lorre might not have been able to get a story about a transgender parent loosely based on his own life greenlit the traditional way. That's what Amazon did for Transparent creator Jill Soloway.
Traditional non-broadcast networks broke the ice with programs like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men. The new risk-takers are in the theatrical tradition of the people who backed the angry young men in the 50s. Only now it's a little more like unhappy middle-aged men who are really women.
Even that premise might have been a hard sell in the legit theater. On the internet, though, it's probably only the beginning.