Two of this fall's most interesting new comedies are going to fail, and its all Amazon's fault.
Alpha House and Betas, developed for Amazon in a full season streaming model similar to Netflix's House of Cards, aired their pilots—along with 12 others that didn't get a series order—back in April, to very little fanfare outside of the entertainment blogosphere. At the time that seemed smart: if the airing of those 14 pilots went well, Amazon could tout it after the fact; if the experiment in turning an online retailer into a production company failed, it could easily be brushed under the rug. But the two comedies that made it out of the Gladiator-esque ring are now about to premiere in a week, and it's looking very likely that they just might fail.
1. There is virtually no advertising for them.
Alpha House boasts a great premise: four Republican senators living in a joint crash pad in Washington, D.C. (according to The New York Times, the show is loosely based on Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Richard Durbin, and representatives George Miller and Bill Delahunt). It was written by Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau, who has developed with HBO in the past. It stars John Goodman—arguably one of the most versatile small screen actors of late—who has more than proven his comedy chops, but also just had an unforgettable turn on FX's Damages. Yet after an exhaustive search for any sort of advertising for the show, I found nothing more than one promotional photo being on used on any blog review. There's one trailer uploaded to YouTube during the launch of the pilot experiment, but for a show that's airing all its episodes in a mere 10 days, I've seen no billboards, newspaper advertisements, website banner ads—not even on Amazon itself. Betas suffers a similar fate.
To make sure that I wasn't just bad at searching websites, I put the question out to my colleagues: all people who spend way too much time in front of their first screens, second screens, third screens, etc. Three had never heard about it, one said "I knew about it but can't name any and have no particular interest," and a fifth said he'd heard about it just that day, then realized it was because I'd asked about it ten minutes earlier. When House Of Cards was launched, Netflix didn't put many costly television ads behind it, but Kevin Spacey and his bleeding hands were plastered on billboards and websites across the nation.
Launching a new service is something that requires press—all of that traffic Amazon gets via retail is doing it no good if banner ads urging me to go holiday shopping outshine the two big shows they're launching within days.
2. Amazon's streaming interface is hard to use.
Amazon does not make it easy to view any of their streaming video—movies and television you can purchase from them, much less their new shows. From the site itself, to access their streaming content, you have to click a small button for Amazon departments and navigate from there. Their home page is customized to your purchase history, but all I purchase from Amazon is movies to view through Prime, and my home page is still a litany of soap dispenser fire sales.
Digital players like Roku carry Amazon Prime, but Apple TV doesn't, which cuts out a huge market share of people who are willing to online stream. Make your shows hard to find, on a web platform that doesn't look nearly as elegant as Hulu Plus (or even Netflix, which isn't exactly a model of streaming service design), and you're alienating viewers before you even lured them in.
3. The digital marketplace is crowded.
Thanks to Netflix and Hulu Plus, along with MSN, YouTube, and AOL all joining the digital series game, the landscape is currently well populated with quality programming. Add in established broadcast networks focusing more on their digital offerings—Comedy Central added six new digital series to their returning three today—and even a cable cord-cutter has more options than they know what do with.
To stand out, Amazon needs to show that their original programming can compete with Netflix in a way that even Hulu currently can't (no disrespect to Hulu's Moone Boy, which I love).
4. Amazon is dominating the news cycle, but it's not helping the shows.
The upside to being on Amazon is that, according to Quantcast, you're on the sixth most visited website in America. And Amazon has been making a lot of waves in the news lately: CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post earlier this summer; tales of Amazon working conditions have been making the blogosphere rounds, namely on Gawker; Bezos' wife MacKenzie came under fire just today for leaving a 1-star review on the site of a book that's critical towards her husband. While all press is good press, all that Amazon press is overshadowing their shows. Call it the NBC Ben Silverman model—there reached a point in NBC's tenure where the hard-partying chairman of the time's antics started becoming all entertainment writers could talk about, and suddenly NBC's shows became an afterthought.
5. The launch coincides with fall television premieres.
Given how network television has been lately—weak, quickly cancelled, not very engaging—this shouldn't be an issue, but it is. The fall television marketplace is crowded. People are still in the middle of the great DVR shuffle: what do you cancel? What do you stick with? Why does Time Warner's DVR end a show right in the middle of the tag? (And no I can't just extend my record time by a minute, otherwise it won't let me record my next show, even on the same network. This dance is very complicated.) When you launch a show in that fall marketplace, you have to be noisy to even get viewers. House of Cards launched February 1st of this year, Orange Is The New Black, July 11th. Both shows came out a time when viewers generally had more bandwidth to take on a new show—there's a reason scheduling is one of the most important departments at networks. Factor in that Amazon's pilots for the shows aired in April, but the series didn't premiere until almost seven months later, and you're losing what little momentum the shows already had.
All of the above is not to say that Alpha House and Betas won't be good—both have been getting pretty decent reviews for new shows shot on shoestring budgets, but if things keep trending the way they are with Amazon, it'll take more than just a great script and cast to keep either of these on the air.