Binge or hold? Amazon tries both with ‘Alpha House’

Senior Television Writer
11.04.13 10 Comments

Back in the spring, Amazon tried to find a solution to the TV business’ broken series development process by crowd-sourcing reaction to a group of new comedy pilots (some for adults, some for kids). All of the traditional networks do audience focus testing of their pilots, but not on this scale: all of the pilots were available to anyone with a good internet connection. Decisions on which shows would be picked up would be based in part on how highly Amazon’s customers rated them, and how many rated them, period.

One of the shows to survive that process was “Alpha House,” a political comedy from “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau about a quartet of Republican senators sharing a house in Washington. In John Goodman, it had the most recognizable star of any of the Amazon pilot, and also was one of the pilots that seemed easier to translate into an ongoing series. I didn’t love the pilot, but I wasn’t surprised in the least to hear that it made the cut.

Trudeau, producer Jonathan Alter and an Amazon executive all spoke to the New York Times’ David Carr for a story that ran today, and the most interesting part of the story is the distribution model Amazon has chosen to use for this (and presumably other) series: the first three episodes will all be released at once on Nov. 15, and be available to anyone, while the additional episodes will be released once a week, available only to Amazon Prime customers. (“Betas,” another of the winning comedies, will follow the same plan starting a week later, on Nov. 22.)

This is a compromise between the traditional weekly TV model and the Netflix all-at-once model. It’s also something that’s fairly close to how TV critics experience most new cable series: we get a handful upfront, and then watch weekly like everyone else. And before Netflix entered the original programming game earlier this year (with “House of Cards,” which “Alpha House” is essentially the sitcom counterpart to), it was a model I was hoping channels would experiment more with new series – especially the sort of slow-burning and/or novel ones where you need to see a handful of episodes to decide if it’s for you. (You could, for instance, put the first three or four episodes up On Demand on the night of the traditional premiere, then continue to run it weekly, giving the people intrigued enough to keep going more of an initial sample.)

Netflix executives insist the binge model works for them, though we have to take their word for it, given the fierceness with which they keep their viewership data secret. And certainly there’s a big burst of discussion around most of the Netflix originals when they come out. The week “House of Cards” was released, my Twitter feed turned into a competition to see who could finish it first, and there was a period of about a month where I felt like “Orange Is the New Black” was the only show anyone was discussing. But in terms of social media – which has been invaluable as Netflix itself in building audience for ongoing shows like “Scandal” – the discussion of each has been fairly brief. Within a few weeks, “Cards,” “Orange” and “Arrested Development” were all old news, where cable shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad” get 2-3 months worth of ongoing discussion and proselytizing each season. No doubt people are still starting those shows (and “Lilyhammer,” “Derek” and “Hemlock Grove”) even now, but there’s not enough of a mass watching and talking at once after the initial burst.

I doubt Amazon knows any more about Netflix’s numbers than the rest of us do, but I suspect they’ve paid attention to the social media aspect – and also see other value in extending a season of each show. (If, hypothetically, you’re just subscribing to Prime to watch “Alpha House,” you can’t dump your subscription after a few days after you’ve marathoned through it all. As several people have reminded me, Amazon Prime is an annual subscription, so nobody could subscribe just long enough to watch any one show.)

Every time I bring up the Netflix model, I get people saying they just want to watch their shows at the pace they want to watch them, and I get other people saying they miss the shared discussion they get from the traditional weekly pace. I’m going to be curious to see what happens with “Alpha House,” not only in terms of whether Trudeau and Alter can make a funnier series than they did a pilot, and how the audience responds to this hybrid roll-out model.

What does everybody else think?

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