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February 19, 2014

The Blooming Field of Online Originals

Viewers can’t seem to get enough of online originals, so on-demand streaming services are working overtime to supply the demand.

Daniel Frankel

For viewers of the political drama House of Cards, the very calculated risks taken by Kevin Spacey, as a scheming U.S. congressman, were a big reason to binge through all 13 episodes of season one.

For Netflix, the series also represented a risky but very determined move. The subscription-based company wanted to mimic the business models of pay-cable titans HBO and Showtime, increasing its subscriber base by creating unique, in-demand original programming.

Netflix came up with a winning formula: spend lavishly — reportedly more than $100 million — on top talent and production values, and combine that with its famously granular, NSA–level data about its audience.

And it didn’t miss. With its February debut, House of Cards proved that if a digital upstart really wanted to create a high-quality, original hit series that could win Primetime Emmy Awards — 3 of them to be precise, out of 9 nominations — it could do it. The debut 5 months later of Jenji Kohan’s similarly lauded women’s prison drama, Orange Is the New Black, which has become Netflix’s most watched original show, further supported that notion.

Suddenly, for every digital company dabbling in premium original video content, the bar had been raised. To compete at the level of Netflix, companies must now invest real money — in top-level, union-repped talent and production resources.

Of course, for those who enjoy quality television, that’s a good thing. With Netflix developing its next batch of online originals — and the 2 other major players in the subscription video-on-demand business, Amazon and Hulu, looking to get into the game — the scene is set for a flurry of big series premieres over the next 12 months.

Yes, 2014 promises to be even bigger than 2013. Here’s a look at some current and upcoming highlights:


While Netflix prevailed among premium digital streamers this year, it’s likely that Amazon Studios will have the next big online hit.

Looking to make a splash with its half-hour satirical comedy Alpha House, Amazon is sticking close to the winning formula established by House of Cards, kicking off its primetime originals business with a show that also focuses on the excess-laden world of national politics.

The comparison can probably end there. While House of Cards is a kind of Game of Thrones examination of the Beltway power culture, Alpha House is more Curb Your Enthusiasm… or better, Veep.

Just like Netflix, which has seen its U.S. subscriber numbers spike from 21.8 million in September 2012 to 31.4 million a year later — largely based on the drawing power of its originals — Amazon has good reasons for spending a reported $1 million to $2 million on each of the 11 episodes of its 1st season of Alpha House.

As of the 2nd quarter of this year, Amazon had 11 million members in its Prime service, which beyond letting customers stream movies and TV shows like Alpha House, also gives them free shipping on physical goods like Kindle Fire tablets. And with Prime members spending about 150 percent more on the shopping platform than typical Amazon customers, the company understandably wants to increase their ranks.

Alpha House stars John Goodman, Clark Johnson, Matt Malloy and Mark Consuelos as four dysfunctional Republican senators who share a rental house in D.C. Created by Doonesbury mastermind Garry Trudeau — who is executive-producing with Jonathan Alter and Elliot Webb — it was one of eight adult primetime and six children’s pilots that Amazon posted on its platform earlier this year.

Amazon let its users watch these pilots for free and requested their feedback. The company recently began refining the process, quietly forming small focus groups out of its more active users.

After evaluating viewer data and other factors, Amazon decided to move forward with Alpha House, as well as another comedy, coincidentally titled Betas, an ensemble about 20-somethings at a Silicon Valley start-up.

While the show’s stars — Joe Dinicol, Charlie Saxton, Jon Daly, Karan Soni and Maya Erskine — are not household names, the producing roster includes TV and film veterans Alan Freedland, Alan R. Cohen, Michael London and Michael Lehmann.

Alpha House appears to be a series that could answer Netflix’s bell in terms of star power and audience appeal. Or, as digital media analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research puts it: “Amazon is spending real money.”

Roy Price, the former financial analyst who runs Amazon Studios, would not confirm the reported $1 million-to-$2 million-per-episode price tag, but he does say the budget is “in the ballpark” of made-for-pay-cable half-hour series.

Qualitatively, the Alpha House pilot certainly looks and delivers laughs like a top-shelf premium cable comedy.

When Johnson, as the cagey senator from Pennsylvania, lets Goodman — the blustery gentleman from North Carolina — reuse the speech he just gave on the Senate floor to continue a filibuster, he gets a dry, “Hey, thanks!” from Goodman in response.

Meanwhile, Molloy’s senator from Nevada — a Mormon of questionable sexual orientation who opposes gay rights — appears before the Council for Normal Marriage to receive a phallic-shaped Say No to Sodomy Award.  And the episode gets a cameo boost from Bill Murray, playing an outgoing roommate who oversleeps on the morning he’s supposed to be turning himself in to the Department of Justice.

So how is Amazon getting the word out about Alpha House and Betas? With “a mix of advertising on Amazon, as well as more traditional platforms,” says Price, who in addition to the sprawling empire, also has the traffic-producing Internet Movie Database (Amazon owns IMDB) to direct viewers toward its series.

Amazon chose to initially release three episodes of both series — Alpha House dropped November 15, Betas November 22 — and then follow with 1 new episode per week. For Price, this trickling methodology is preferable to making entire seasons available all at once, as the other big on-demand platform, Netflix, does with its shows.

“I think doing that creates a little problem for the water cooler,” says Price, noting that it’s difficult to create a cultural buzz around a show when some fans are on episode 1 while others are on episode 9 and still others have finished the whole season already. “You can see it in the numbers,” he adds.

As Amazon Studios ramped up development under Price this year, it used a uniquely democratized “open-source” system, whereby anyone could pitch a script or a series concept. More than 5,000 pilot scripts were uploaded to the site; ultimately, 2 of the 25 produced pilots came from the online process. The company also uses a 2nd track of traditional development.

With its Los Angeles headquarters, Amazon Studios seems to be relying more and more on proven TV industry executives, such as former ABC Studios senior vice-president Morgan Wandell, who was hired in October to oversee drama development.

And Betas aside, looking into 2014, the company seems to be relying on more established talent for its series, too.

Primetime pilots under consideration, for example, include Mozart in the Jungle, an adaptation of Blair Tindall’s memoir of life among struggling, recreational drug–gobbling New York classical musicians, written by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Alex Timbers.

There’s also The After, an apocalyptic thriller from X-Files skipper Chris Carter, and Bosch, a procedural cop drama based on the work of writer Michael Connelly.


While Amazon stepped up with big-name talent in 2013 to challenge Netflix, Hulu — which touts about 4 million paid subscribers — spent the first half of the year in a kind of holding pattern, waiting to see if its corporate owners were going to sell the subscription video service.

Besides a number of coproduction deals with the BBC for so-called North American exclusives — like the just-premiered The Wrong Mans, starring Tony winner James Corden — Hulu has invested in some go-it-alone original productions.

Those include shows with high-profile talent like Eva Longoria and Seth Meyers, who are producing — and voicing — half-hour animated comedies. Longoria’s Mother Up!, about a Manhattan mom transitioning to suburban life, debuted in November.

Meyers’s The Awesomes, about a misfit band of superheroes, debuted in August and is queued up for a 2nd season next summer. Executive-producing with Meyers are his former Saturday Night Live colleagues Michael Shoemaker and Lorne Michaels, and the cast also includes ex-SNL-ers like Bill Hader and Rachel Dratch.

“Comedy and animation — those are the kinds of programs that have traditionally done well on our platform,” Charlotte Koh, Hulu’s head of development, told emmy earlier this year. 

The relatively inexpensive coproductions and toons supplement an array of 1st-run, in-season TV shows that viewers won’t find on any other streaming service, but Hulu has yet to debut a big, splashy original show.

With its ownership and management situation now stabilized, that is likely to change soon.

In August, the company announced that it is partnering with Lionsgate and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment to produce 10 episodes of the subversive comedy Deadbeat, about a New York medium who helps ghosts settle their unfinished tasks. Troy Miller (Arrested Development) will direct and also executive produce. The cast includes Tyler Labine, Cat Deeley (host of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance), Brandon T. Jackson and Lucy DeVito.

Deadbeat is expected to debut sometime in 2014 on both Hulu’s free and paid-subscription services. Given the involvement of Lionsgate, which produces Netflix’s critically lauded Orange Is the New Black, it should be the company’s most ambitious — and risky — original content investment to date.


After a year full of big, buzzy primetime shows — which included season two of the Ricky Gervais comedy Derek — Netflix is closing out 2013 rather quietly.

On December 13 it launches season two of Lilyhammer, the coproduction that stars Steven Van Zandt (The Sopranos) as an ex-gangster awkwardly exiled to snowy Scandinavia.

Also in December, Netflix debuts the kids’ series Turbo: F.A.S.T. An adaptation of the DreamWorks Animation feature, it features the voice of Mark Hamill.

Netflix promises an even bigger splash in 2014. In an October conference call with investors, CEO Reed Hastings said that the company will double its original-content spending during the calendar year.

To that end, the streaming service has committed to second seasons of House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and the Eli Roth horror series Hemlock Grove. It has also confirmed a 13-episode order for a psychological thriller from Damages creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler and Daniel Zelman.

The series — yet to be titled — concerns the unveiling of family secrets among adult siblings when a black-sheep brother returns home.

Meanwhile, reportedly in development for 2014 — though unconfirmed by Netflix — is Narcos, a series focused on notorious Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, from Brazilian director José Padilha.

The company was also said to be in talks with the Weinstein Company and Electus to distribute Marco Polo, a 9-part period drama from creators John Fusco (Young Guns) and Dave Erikson (Sons of Anarchy) that was originally intended to air on Starz.

Notably unmentioned by Hastings when touting the 2014 slate was the science-fiction drama Sense8, from The Matrix creators Andy and Lana Wachowski along with Georgeville Television. A 10-episode order for that show was announced earlier this year, but at press time its fate was unknown.

Already announced for 2015 and beyond: the rollout of four 13-episode live-action series based on the Marvel characters Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, to be followed by a miniseries called The Defenders. The deal with Marvel and ABC Television Studios, both divisions of the Walt Disney Company, comes on the heels of last year’s movie distribution deal that will bring Disney features to Netflix starting in 2016.

Originally published Emmy® magazine issue 12-2013.

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