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Amazon Prime's episodic rollout of "Alpha House" and "Betas" makes sense -- for Amazon

George Lang Published: November 21, 2013
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In this photo provided by Amazon Studios, from left, Jon Daly, Charlie Saxton, Joe Dinicol and Karan Soni, star in Amazon’s foriginal series “Betas,” which debuts Nov. 22, 2013, on Amazon.com. (AP Photo/Amazon Studios)
In this photo provided by Amazon Studios, from left, Jon Daly, Charlie Saxton, Joe Dinicol and Karan Soni, star in Amazon’s foriginal series “Betas,” which debuts Nov. 22, 2013, on Amazon.com. (AP Photo/Amazon Studios)

When Amazon Studios’ first original series “Alpha House” debuted on Nov. 15, it arrived on Amazon Prime with just three episodes available — the original episode of the political comedy, which bowed during Amazon Prime’s pilot season this spring, and the first two new ones after Amazon picked up the show. That’s only three episodes with new installments coming every Friday, but in a streaming video environment where bingeing on entire seasons is the order of the day, why is Amazon counting calories?

This could have something to do with Amazon’s free-for-a-month introductory offer to sell Prime service based on “Alpha House” and “Betas,” the Silicon Valley-based comedy that rolled out its first three episodes on Friday. Presumably, the hope is that enough people will be enticed to sign up for Prime after seeing the first half of these series, all so they can see the rest of the episodes after their the clock runs out on their free trials.

We’re watching the conventional wisdom evolve rapidly on the subject of streaming and binge-viewing. When “House of Cards” debuted in early 2013, the debate centered on how Netflix’ full-season release strategy would affect the collective appreciation of television. In other words, there was much hand-wringing over the death of the “water cooler” and premature nostalgia for the days when we’d sit around discussing the previous night’s “Sopranos” episode on Monday morning.

But once “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” gained cultural traction, new models of “water cooler” discussion emerged as viewers found their relative consumption speeds. Those who fully binged engaged in full data-dumps with likeminded viewers, deferred or delayed discussion with people who were pacing themselves, or prefaced interchanges with questions like “Have you gotten to the one with the chicken?” to avoid spoiler deployment. Essentially, people either had five-gallon water cooler discussions or broke it down 20 ounces at a time, depending on the audience. Binge viewing did not kill the conversation — it changed how we engage.

So by the time “Alpha House” and “Betas” rolled out this month, some of the hair-trigger analysts denounced Amazon’s more conventional rollout strategy as disappointingly old-school, a sign that the company was straddling the line between the vanguard and the accepted way things are done on networks and cable. But just a quick look at the numbers shows why Amazon would dole out its episodes at this moment in Prime’s maturation.

Two months ago, Netflix reported 31.2 million total domestic streaming subscribers in its third-quarter earnings report. Numbers on Amazon Prime are more nebulous and definitely smaller. Amazon does not release its subscriber numbers, but the independent investment research firm Morningstar estimated the number at 10 million in March. Last month, CNet reported that that Amazon Prime had added “millions” of new subscribers in its own third quarter, but did not say how many “millions.”

Given its rank in the competition — Hulu Plus comes in third, having hit 4 million subscribers in April — it makes sense that Amazon would parcel out “Alpha House” and “Betas” during a one-month trial offer. For future seasons and series, it would be nice to see Amazon Prime do full-season drops, but for now, the company appears to be cultivating a growth spurt for its streaming service. That’s not the time to give away the farm.

George Lang