Beverly Hills, CA -- What's the difference between a television network and a streaming service? At Television Critics Association tours the answer is increasingly, "Not much."
This was abundantly clear last Saturday when Amazon Studios and Hulu largely dominated an entire day at the Summer tour. Amazon, making its TCA debut, was here for three and one-half hours, which included a lunch following six panels. They included sessions with the producers and casts of Alpha House , which is the first Amazon series renewed for a second season, and four upcoming series – comedies Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle and dramas Bosch and The After. The pilots for these series are currently available for free viewing on Amazon.
The day had actually begun with a presentation from another "alternate" programming provider, as they are sometimes referred to at TCA. DirecTV kicked things off with a session for its upcomingseries Kingdom, a scripted drama about mixed martial arts fighters that stood out as one of the most intriguing and original series previewed at this tour so far. The well-attended Amazon sessions and a panel for Reelz Channel's upcoming reality series Living with the Jacksons followed. Then it was back to the digital spectrum with a block of sessions from Hulu, here for its fourth TCA tour, which makes it the streaming service most invested in this organization.
Hulu had scheduled three panels – one for its new reality effort The Hotwives of Orlando and two for its returning series Quick Draw (a western-themed comedy) and East Los High (a youth-ensemble serialized drama with an all-Latino cast and a series unlike any found on English- or Spanish-speaking television). There was a panel at the July 2013 tour for Quick Draw before its debut, making it the first digital series to twice be showcased at a TCA tour.
There was also a surprise panel at the end with South Park and Book of Mormon creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, on hand to announce that Hulu is now the exclusive home to every episode of South Park.
Parker and Stone were among the attendees at a lavish party Hulu threw in the penthouse suite here at the Beverly Hilton Hotel after its sessions, making Hulu the first streaming service to host so deluxe a meet and greet at a tour. A special guest at the party was Seth Meyers, who arrived that afternoon in preparation for his appearance on a panel for the Emmy Awards during NBC's presentations the following day. Meyers is the co-creator and an executive producer of one of Hulu's most successful animated series, The Awesomes, and he worked the party like a pro on behalf of that show. (He will also be busily promoting it at the San Diego Comic-Con.)
Anyway, Hulu is completely impressive in is approach to TCA and the value this event provides to programmers of every kind. There are in fact some television networks that could learn a thing or two from the way Hulu takes full advantage of this opportunity.
Amazon, meanwhile, is coming up fast on the TCA front. The roster of talent it produced for its panels was certainly impressive -- including John Goodman, Mark Consuelos and Clark Johnson of AlphaHouse; Titus Welliver, Annie Wersching, Lance Reddick and Scott Wilson of Bosch along with author Michael Connelly, author of the 17 Bosch novels; Saffron Burrows and executive producer Jason Schwartzman of Mozart in the Jungle; Aldis Hodge, Sharon Lawrence, Adrian Pasdar and executive producer Chris Carter of The After, and Jeffrey Tambor of Transparent. Most of them made clear that they were thrilled to be working in productions that were not hindered by the rules of traditional television (including cable).
Gaby Hoffman, co-star of Transparent, said it best: "[The] notion that is prevalent that we are making some sort of sacrifice by working for Amazon is actually completely false. I would have done this show for no pay. Luckily, I'm getting very, very nicely paid. [It] is a privilege working with Amazon. We have such freedom. We talk about it every day. They are our allies and our supporters and our cheerleaders. We don't have to fight for anything. We are given everything we want and need, and they are letting the show and us be what we need to be, what we want to be, what we organically are becoming every moment, and it is 100 percent a privilege."
That sentiment was echoed by virtually every producer and actor on every Amazon panel.
Amazon has made a practice of posting pilots for promising series on its free site and invitingusers/visitors/customers to rate them as a means of helping to determine which projects will move forward. This has resulted in the green-lighting of one good but not great series (Alpha House) and one that likely should never have been made (Alphas), proving that it is an imperfect practice at best. Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle , The After and Bosch represent the favored programs from Amazon's second batch of public-tested pilots, which the service refers to as Pilot Season. They all seemed quite promising.
TCA members were shown clips from the next five pilots – three comedies and two dramas – that comprise Amazon's third Pilot Season, set to begin in August:Red Oaks, from Steven Soderbergh and starring Paul Reiser; The Cosmopolitans, from Whit Stillman, starring Chloe Sevigny and Adam Brody; Really, from Jay Chandrasekhar; Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman and Dana Delany; and Hysteria, from Shaun Cassidy and starring Mena Suvari.
There were a few issues Amazon executives were made to address, not always successfully, including the lack of release or drop dates for some of these series (Transparent will arrive sometime in September, the second season of Alpha House in October and Mozart in December) and the question often posed to executives from all streaming services: How many people are watching your shows?
When asked specifically how many people had watched Alpha House, Amazon programming executive Joe Lewis replied, "We do know how many. I'm not going to tell you."
"I think the important part, what we focus on, is the feedback," Lewis continued. "Do people like it? This isn't necessarily about the number. You don't have to tune in Thursday at 8:00 to watch Alpha House. As a company, I don't think we're particularly concerned if you watch it on your television or Kindle or if you watch it Saturday or Sunday or a month from now. I think its short term to think about how many viewers watch it on a given night … for us, character and story are more important."