Betas, a television comedy from the producers of Heathers and King of the Hill, is Hollywood’s latest attempt to dramatize life in Silicon Valley. It’s about a pair of young startup founders and their larger-than-life venture capitalist (played by Ed Begley Jr., in a role the show’s writers based on quirky Facebook (FB) backer Roger McNamee). The pilot episode, filmed at a Santa Monica studio in March, includes the typical tech clichés, such as hopelessly nerdy engineers who can’t approach women and spend more time chatting over beers than keyboards.
The twist: Betas is being financed by Amazon.com (AMZN). When the pilot debuts this spring on the site’s Instant Video service, viewership and reviews will determine whether the creators make more episodes. “At least we’ll get to step up to the plate and take a swing,” says director Michael Lehmann. “It’s a new network and a new way of doing things.”
Amazon, like Netflix (NFLX) with its buzzy Kevin Spacey drama House of Cards, is developing original programming in an effort to pry viewers away from broadcast and cable outlets. Unlike Netflix, though, Amazon is spreading its money around: Betas will hit the Web along with six children’s shows and seven other comedies, including Alpha House, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau’s look at freshman congressmen bunking together in Washington, D.C. Amazon will be relying heavily on viewer comments. “We think there is an opportunity to reinvent the process of developing original films and TV shows by getting lots of feedback and input from our customers much earlier in the development process,” says Bill Carr, the company’s vice president of music and video.
In his letter to shareholders last year, Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos delivered a rallying cry for stripping away the layers separating creators from their audience, writing that even “well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation.” While Amazon’s use of the Kindle to circumvent traditional booksellers and publishers has received more attention, since 2009 its Amazon Studios division has quietly pursued a similar creators-to-customers model with original entertainment. The division, run by former Disney (DIS) executive Roy Price, initially solicited film scripts and awarded money to favorites reviewed by site visitors, who were prompted to compare pitches and rate various plot elements.
Progress at Amazon Studios has been slow, as the division has struggled to secure the stars and capital needed to launch a film production. Last year, Amazon began financing TV pilots, which are faster and cheaper to produce. Some participants now question whether the company will leave its thumb off the scale. “Are they really going to dump a pilot they love?” says Gavin Polone, an executive producer of Amazon pilot Zombieland, based on the 2009 film of the same name. “The worst decisions are the ones made solely on data and market research,” he adds, noting that test audiences famously panned Seinfeld. Amazon’s Price acknowledges, “You don’t abandon your television judgment and go with whatever has the most votes.” Amazon’s process is different, he says: “This is going to be the biggest focus group of all time.”
The creators of Betas say working with Amazon has already given them unusual freedom. The company took two weeks to approve the making of the pilot, compared with a typical network’s nine months. Amazon also approved hiring unproven writer Evan Endicott, a former assistant to The Descendants director Alexander Payne. “He has a unique voice, and Amazon is very open to unique voices,” says producer Michael London. At least one voice didn’t make it into the Betas pilot, though: Jeff Bezos declined a cameo in one of the party scenes.