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There used to be just one way for getting shows on TV. Networks would spend tens of millions of dollars ordering scripts and shooting pilots and then show the fruits of their labor to focus groups. A small group of executives would cherry-pick a few promising shows to put on TV, hoping they'd be a hit with bigger audiences.
The process was unscientific, expensive, and often didn't work. It's still how most of the industry operates today.
Online retailing giant Amazon.com Inc. aims to put a twist on the business with its own foray into original TV show production. Starting soon, it will debut 14 of its own TV show pilots on its website, allowing anyone from the U.S., U.K. and Germany watch them for free. The company will ask for viewer input, and hopes the comments and critiques will help decide which shows live or die.
"Why follow the guru method when you don't have to anymore?" says Roy Price, director of Amazon Studios. "The audience is out there and the audience is interested. We might as well make them a partner in the process."
The completed series will be available for no extra charge to subscribers of Amazon Prime, its $79-a-year rewards program. Prime, which launched in 2005 as a way to entice U.S. customers with free two-day shipping, has since expanded internationally and allows members to borrow e-books as well as watch movies and TV shows on computers, mobile devices and Internet-connected TVs.
By getting into original TV shows, Amazon is riding a wave of Internet-fueled people power that is transforming the entertainment industry. Online buzz can make or break movies these days. And crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter help generate fans and startup capital before would-be producers start filming.
Debuting shows online also helps avoid problems caused with the age-old TV model, where everything from a weak lead-in show to the Major League Baseball playoffs can draw viewers away unexpectedly.
"We're not just playing that time-slot game," says Alan Cohen, a producer of the Amazon comedy pilot, "Betas."
"Here, you have the opportunity to put it out, and it doesn't matter exactly what time it airs. People can find the show and it'll be out there."
As it makes big bets on online video, Amazon is competing with companies such as Netflix Inc. and Hulu. Netflix debuted its original series "House of Cards" in February to critical acclaim. Netflix hopes that the monthly fees it takes in from its growing subscriber base more than cover its increased spending on TV shows and movies. Its coming quarterly earnings results, due Monday, will be the first indication of whether "House of Cards" — which had a reported budget of around $5 million per episode — helped attract more subscribers.
Amazon has more to gain by growing Prime members than just paying for TV shows. Once people join Prime, they tend to buy 6-8 times more items from Amazon than non-members, in part to take advantage of the free shipping, says Daniel Kurnos, an analyst with the investment bank, Benchmark Co. They also buy digital books and movies on the store that aren't included as freebies.
Amazon doesn't divulge how many Prime members it has, other than to say there are "millions." Kurnos estimates there are between 6 million and 10 million.
"Amazon has always been trying to drive more customers to Prime. Not because Prime itself is profitable, but because it gives you golden handcuffs," Kurnos says.
The company gets a second benefit from Prime because third-party sellers like camera dealers pay fees to be included in the Prime free shipping program, which requires that they send their goods to Amazon warehouses for handling. That keeps the company's facilities humming at fuller capacity, making its deliveries more efficient.
In a sign that the focus on Prime is working, shipping revenue — where Prime membership fees are recorded — has been growing, up 57 percent in the quarter through December to $832 million compared with a year ago. That has pushed net shipping costs as a percentage of total revenue down, from 5.4 percent to 4.5 percent, helping boost profitability. Revenue grew 22 percent to $21.3 billion in the most recent quarter, a number that underscores the outsized benefits of a seemingly small improvement.
Amazon has been investing heavily to convince more people to sign up for Prime, and recently paid for the exclusive online rights to a number of shows including the second season of "Downton Abbey" and the CBS show "Under the Dome," which will debut this summer.
The company is taking a creative stab in the TV space, not just a financial one. One of the original pilots, "Betas," is about a high-tech startup that is trying to create the world's greatest social media app, called BRB. The "Betas" shoot took place in a real-life shared workspace for app developers in Santa Monica, Calif., last month. The show treads on familiar ground for the Internet pioneer company Jeff Bezos founded in a Seattle garage two decades ago.
Script memos from Amazon higher-ups tended to focus on how to portray startup culture, rather than on character or plot. Amazon put producers on the phone with real-life venture capitalists, helping writers craft one of the main characters, a financier played by Ed Begley Jr.
"It's little things from that world," said Alan Freedland, another veteran producer overseeing the show. "Guys were saying, 'They wouldn't say they'd email each other.' They said, 'They'd ping each other.' "
And actors are warming to the new reality that Internet companies are wading into what was once exclusive Hollywood territory.
Karan Soni, who plays the straight-laced software programmer in "Betas," said he likes that his work will be seen, something that the traditional TV system doesn't guarantee. That not only helps the 24-year-old's career, it suits the younger generation he's part of.
"What Amazon is doing which I think is really cool is the pilots are actually going to be seen by everyone," Soni says. "They encourage you to watch on your computer and tablet and things, whereas networks don't. So we're not fighting with the people we're sending the content to. That is so cool."