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Summary:

Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have all made big investments in original series over the last two years — but Netflix is the only one with Emmy nominations. Is there more to it than a lack of David Fincher?

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When Netflix made television history this summer with its nine Emmy nominations for House of Cards, there was a lot of discussion about how the the show’s victory represented a major breakthrough for digital content.

But it’s a success that appears to be limited to Netflix at this stage. This month, Amazon took the next step on the path to adding original series to its Instant Video service, launching the series Alpha House and Betas.

The distribution strategy is intriguing: The first three episodes are free for everyone, and then (presumably after you’ve gotten hooked) you need an Instant Video account to watch the rest of the season. And while Betas features a largely unknown cast (with the exception of Ed Begley Jr.), Alpha House stars the always-dependable John Goodman and includes a brief cameo from Bill Murray.

But based on the level of buzz these shows have received, it’s hard to imagine either of them competing against broadcast television — or even Netflix.

Hulu has also had the same problem with its original series, beginning with the 2012 comedy Battleground. This raises the question: Why has Netflix succeeded in pushing out its content to a mainstream audience? There’s more to the answer than subscriber numbers and movie stars. In both cases, I think the problem is basically this: Clutter.

One of my favorite recent headlines on the matter is this one from Sahil Patel: “John Goodman Doesn’t Know Where to Find Alpha House on Amazon”. The article recaps a moment from Goodman’s appearance on The Daily Show, when Stewart pressed Goodman on where the Gary Trudeau-created series could be found on Amazon.

“Is it a button you click on the site?” Stewart asked. “I don’t know,” Goodman replied, then went on to (inaccurately) describe the Amazon Prime viewing process, suggesting that you have to buy a “little box or something.”

It’s actually not that hard to find Alpha House on the browser version of Amazon Instant — if you go directly to the Amazon Instant Video page, or Google it. But Amazon Instant isn’t a primary focus when you go to Amazon.com — it can be accessed via two different text links, but at the moment Amazon seems much more interested in selling Kindle Fires.

I don’t have a Prime account, but I asked several Prime subscribers if their home pages featured Instant Video content. Only one or two had any titles listed, and they were equally buried amongst the other products Amazon offers.

Meanwhile, across all platforms, Hulu’s original series are actively competing for real estate with broadcast television, cable shows and foreign imports — all of which have the advantage of outside buzz.

Hulu has become a favorite service of many cord-cutters I know — but they don’t subscribe for the original shows Hulu is producing; they’re using it as a replacement for cable.

And Amazon Instant still feels like a sidekick to Amazon’s main business; the fact that it’s literally thrown in with free two-day shipping cheapens any potential perception of the service as a premium content offering.

There’s no denying that there are many other factors which have helped Netflix content connect with audiences. For example, each release this year was spaced out just enough to get people excited for the next show – which resulted in each series getting more viewership than the one which preceded it.

The smartest move Amazon has made in promoting Alpha House is emphasizing Trudeau’s involvement in Alpha House. Because, after all, all of Netflix’s major original series this year have featured strong creators BEHIND the scenes.

House of Cards‘s David Fincher and Beau Williamson, Hemlock Grove‘s Eli Roth, Arrested Development‘s Mitch Hurwitz and Orange is the New Black‘s Jenji Kohan might all be operating at different levels of involvement and different quality (okay, I suppose Hemlock Grove has its fans), but their level of experience brings legitimacy to the content.

But, that said, the DNA of both Hulu and Amazon still contains fragments that are preventing their shows from reaching that same level. Each service comes from fundamentally different backgrounds — Amazon sold books, while Hulu was born initially to host broadcast television — and while they’ve evolved, those core missions remain embedded in their strategies, confusing things. Meanwhile, Netflix has a razor-sharp focus on becoming the HBO of digital content, and that determination is paying off.

  1. I like to think I like good television, but my tastes do not always match critics. For instance, despite trying multiple times, I’ve never been able to get into Mad Men. And despite Hemlock Grove’s obvious flaws, I would watch the second season in a heartbeat. Would I recommend it to other people? Probably not. It’s cool that Netflix can make a show that appeals to a slice, and that slice isn’t even “critical acclaim.”

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  2. What are you talking about? Alpha house is featured on the front page of the Amazon streaming apps on my ipad? Duh.

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  3. The race to the New World Order of video entertainment is a marathon, not a sprint, to use a worn out metaphor. Of the three, Hulu Plus is in the most precarious position; it has direct ties to some major content creators, but they have repeatedly shown their willingness to shed this nuisance.

    That leaves Netflix and Amazon, both masters of Big Data about consumers, and both with deep pockets. Both are among the best at “you might also like this” to speed discovery and retain viewers. But don’t write off YouTube too quickly; nobody goes Big Data and prediction like Google, and their pockets are at least as deep as Netflix and Amazon.

    Short term, I’ll keep betting on Netflix. Long term, however, I think Google might just blow them all away.

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  4. I am a cord cutter and subscribed to both Netflix and Prime at a point of time. I think it’s much simpler: Netflix offers a much better user experience.

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  5. I said it 4 years a go and I still stand by it. Netflix is the future. The only way I see that changing is if cable providers offer content over the web through ala cart packages. Until you can pick what channels you want to pay for and create your own package people will keep “cutting the cord”.

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