As Clarkson and co gear up for the launch of The Grand Tour, Lisa Campbell looks at Amazon’s content strategy
It’s rare for Yorkshire town Whitby to make the national press – unless, of course, there’s been a flood – but wherever Jeremy Clarkson goes, the world follows. Amazon’s impending launch of The Grand Tour is one of the most globally anticipated series of all time.
Jay Marine, vice-president of Amazon Prime Video Europe, says: “It is a huge TV moment, not only for us but for UK TV generally.”
Indeed, the new driving show is sending everyone into a spin. Rumours are circulating about celebrities in the line-up and the size of Clarkson’s pay packet. There is even speculation that Amazon is looking into bundling broadband alongside its Prime package, which delivers movies and TV shows via the internet.
It’s not an inconceivable idea. Amazon has shown it has an amazing ability to move with the times. Its business has shifted from books, CDs and DVDs to digital content. Prime Video is its future.
That future would be more secure if it didn’t have to rely on broadband providers, many of whom are also television providers.
Amazon’s budget for The Grand Tour is a source of much speculation – reports have claimed each episode had a £4.5m budget. This was rubbished by producer Andy Wilman when he spoke at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August. Whatever the true figure, it’s a safe bet that it is an eye-watering amount, given Clarkson and co’s famous negotiating skills and the exotic locations filmed in Ultra-HD 4k.
The Grand Tour is the clearest demonstration yet of Amazon’s ambitions in the original-content space, where it is facing off against streaming rival Netflix, as well as traditional broadcasters.
However, Netflix’s planned 2017 content spend outstrips Amazon’s by $6bn to $3.6bn, according to Boston Consulting Group. And Netflix Originals currently offers many more new series – Stranger Things, Narcos and Orange is the New Black are among the most popular and critically acclaimed.
But Amazon is increasingly a force to be reckoned with. Marine points out that it has clocked up 80 awards for Amazon Original Series, spanning drama, comedy and kids’ shows. He is looking forward to further noisy and Emmy-winning series such as Transparent, Mr Robot and The Man in the High Castle. To this end, Amazon has pledged to double the amount it spends on licensed material and to triple the amount it invests in original content by the end of 2017.
Moreover, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has begun talking about video becoming the fourth pillar of Amazon’s business. At its heart, Amazon remains an e-commerce company while Netflix is a video-streaming giant.
One competitive advantage that Amazon enjoys is its subscribers’ ability to download content for offline viewing, something that Netflix has so far failed to address.
Marine says that Amazon is continually investing to improve Prime customers’ experience: “The team includes hundreds of engineers, designers and technicians working right here in London… introducing innovations such as our download feature.
“This lets customers watch on their devices even when they’re not connected to the internet.… We’re working hard to be the first streaming service to offer HDR [high dynamic range], which brings a richer viewing experience.”
In addition, Amazon’s e-commerce infrastructure facilitates transactions on the back of TV-show viewing.
"Amazon wanted something a bit cult, a bit tribal, as opposed to anything too mainstream"
A report by eBay in September shows how “dual-screening” is booming for those in need of some retail therapy. Everyone from Game of Thrones to Bake Off fans, it seems, is watching TV while simultaneously shopping. In the report, one former Amazon executive describes how a major goal is to use TV franchises to drive sales of apparel and accessories. Like Kim Kardashian’s shoes? Click here to buy.
Amazon is keen to add high-end brands to its business, but it should be noted that luxury brands are still reluctant to associate themselves with the company. In October, luxury goods group LVMH said that there was “no way” it would do business with the internet retailer.
By contrast, digital producers have reacted positively to the launch of the self-publishing video service, Amazon Video Direct. Many believe that they will be better able to monetise their videos on a platform where vast numbers of customers are already used to paying for content.
The service is also expected to have an impact on YouTube. “The lure of making content exclusive to Amazon will be a risk for YouTube, which risks losing viewers,” according to Joseph Evans, writing in an Enders Analysis report. Creators will be able to either charge users to access their content or to offer it on an advertising-funded, YouTube-style basis.
Amazon’s increased willingness to partner with established broadcasters also signals the super-sizing of its content ambitions. And those British producers who’ve worked with Amazon refute the suggestion that the company can be tricky to deal with.
Following its joint venture with the BBC on drama series Ripper Street, Amazon recently made the move into comedy. The online giant invested in the well-reviewed BBC Three comedy Fleabag.
It’s a win-win, according to BBC head of comedy Shane Allen. He notes that fully funded content is increasingly rare. DVD sales no longer plug the gap in any deficit-finance deal.
“Amazon’s investment created a more lavish product for the BBC and gave Amazon a critically acclaimed show,” says Allen.
He adds: “The concern with any partner is the level of editorial interference, but we had made a pilot that was true to what [writer and performer] Phoebe Waller-Bridge wanted when it came to cast, ambitions and tone. Amazon bought into that. It was really, really hands off.”
The comedy might be darker in tone than some might expect for Amazon, but Allen says the BBC’s distinct output “and our model of shorter runs suited Amazon. It wanted something a bit cult, a bit tribal, as opposed to anything too mainstream. It was looking for a more distinctive, emotional comedy drama.”
Sky has also partnered with Amazon US for the first time, with the upcoming drama Britannia, a 10-part drama set in AD43, as the Romans invade Britain. Significantly, it is written by Jez Butterworth, the celebrated writer of Jerusalem.
According to Sky drama commissioning editor Cameron Roach, Amazon and Sky share common ground in seeking noisy, commercial shows.
“We were both looking for big-scale projects and the co-production gives us a big budget on screen and a global reputation and presence,” says Roach.
He also reports a positive working relationship with Amazon: “I get the sense that editorial meetings before a shoot are rare for them, but they were good partners and clear about what they wanted. We agreed to share notes, so that the production company would only ever get one set.”
Amazon gets the US rights and Sky Vision handles the UK and European rights. Roach believes that there will be more projects of this nature.
Whether platforms such as Amazon are a friend or a foe to traditional broadcasters has been debated for some time. The tide now appears to be turning in favour of the company becoming an increasingly valuable partner. “Friend or foe feels reductive,” says Roach. “The delivery mechanism is irrelevant. It’s all about supreme content.”
For analyst Tom Harrington at Enders Analysis, Amazon video is “an intriguing case study. It acts as an alluring element of the Amazon Prime membership, trapping users within the online giant’s ecosystem well past the point when they think they are tired of shopping. And yet it is also a very good streaming service in its own right.”
However, he believes a rapid, Netflix-style worldwide roll-out is unlikely. Amazon’s full video service is currently only available in the US, UK, Germany, Austria and Japan, with a roll-out to India anticipated.
Harrington says: “Having a streaming service without a physical distribution infrastructure to support Amazon Prime would be going against present strategic momentum.
“That said, Amazon has time on its side: wherever it goes, it becomes a site that most people trust. Buying from it becomes a very regular, even enjoyable thing.”