Watching the horserace between Netflix and Amazon Prime is way more entertaining than, say, watching original programming such as “Hemlock Grove” or “Browsers,” because following the acquisitions game says a lot about how each service is developing as a streaming video destination.
Until recently, Amazon Prime's video streaming was more or less a bonus for Amazon users who subscribed to the retailer's premium shipping service. For customers who bought enough books, electronics and other assorted stuff every year to justify the $79 annual fee for unlimited shipping, getting to watch “Doctor Who” was just gravy.
The service started with around 5,000 titles in early 2011, but getting the rights to Viacom last year added substantially to Prime's video cache. The service is still dwarfed by Netflix' offerings, but recent additions suggest it is worth having access to both.
Some films just land everywhere, so when “The Hunger Games” and “The Cabin in the Woods” show up on both Netflix and Prime, it's a zero-sum game as to who wins advantage, but dig a little deeper into the “recently added” feeds and some of the hidden strengths of each service reveal themselves.
Netflix has an obvious numbers advantage: it can afford to lose nearly 1,800 titles due to contract expirations (yes, that happened this month), but it also added more than 500 other titles on May 1 alone.
To be fair, only a small percentage of those 500-plus titles are worth anyone's precious free time. For every “Mission: Impossible II” or “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” there are 10 titles like 1990s “Shakma,” in which a baboon turns murderous after being injected with experimental drugs, or “Cutthroat Alley” starring Mack 10 and Bizzy Bone, which earned a 1.9 out of 10 on the Internet Movie Database. But hey, Netflix is a volume dealer, and if the new titles fail to entice, there are always those 202 episodes of “24” sitting in instant queues everywhere.
Amazon Prime is a lot slower to add new titles, but it makes up for its smaller volume by adding some quality older films to the mix. Recently added Prime titles include a few older but worthy movies for streaming that Netflix only has available on disc, including “Five Easy Pieces,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Westworld,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Misery.” Look a little deeper and viewers will see that same placard for 2009's “The Burning Plain” that's been staring at them for months from Prime's “Recently Added” page, but there is progress being made.
The additions and improvements all feel incremental for frequent users, but both services are continuing to grow, whether it always seems obvious or not. And even if the “Recently Added” pages aren't wall-to-wall quality, the effort being put into original programming such as Prime's slate of recent pilots and Netflix's upcoming “Orange is the New Black,” a new series from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, means that there are many plays to be made in this ongoing acquisitions game.