The death knell of cable television has paved the way for streaming TV shows with blockbuster budgets and movie star casts. A subscription TV service means very few or no commercials, and unchains series creators from their obligation to shoe-string network budgets and coveted time slots.
However, this creative freedom comes at the price of being able to attract viewers without the benefit of a cable scroll guide or beneficial lead-in show. Streaming services give viewers the ability to curate their TV watching experience, so they must create high-quality content to attract viewers.
Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Hulu, and others have all released or announced projects with acting royalty and budgets to match. Conceptually, the increased cost and high-profile talent should equate to something far greater than cookie-cutter network procedurals designed around advertisements.
Indeed, the top spender, Netflix, earned 112 Emmy nominations this year, toppling HBO for the first time in 17 years. However, Netflix’s prime competitor, Amazon, seems to have a hard time translating a huge budget into critically acclaimed, award-winning original content.
In 2018, it is estimated that Netflix spent $13 billion on original content, and Amazon spent approximately $5 billion. Other services like Hulu and the upcoming Apple streaming service have also made significant financial commitment, but don’t yet compete with the two giants’ level of spending.
“The Crown,” Netflix’s original series about Queen Elizabeth II, currently ranks atop the list of expensive series with a $157 million budget over its 60-episode run. While Netflix certainly spared no expense in creating “The Crown,” their enormous budget was otherwise spent reasonably on a mix of original movies, series, and comedy specials.
In 2018, they released 92 original movies, and more than two dozen new original series and stand-up specials. Even their star-studded, highly anticipated limited series “Maniac” cost a reasonable $12 million.
Netflix appears to have a formula that balances high quality with high quantity, seemingly creating something for everyone. Their biggest financial commitments of the past year were an exclusive deal with Ryan Murphy worth $300 million, and a deal with the Obamas that is undisclosed, but rumored to be in the $100 million territory.
Amazon has operated in a decidedly different manner. This year Amazon released two of the most expensive television shows ever made: “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and “The Romanoffs.” “Jack Ryan” cost Amazon a cool $60 million, while “The Romanoffs” clocked in closer to $70 million.
Unlike Netflix’s pricy “Crown,” Amazon’s budget-busting series have received mixed reviews from critics and viewers. They boast movie star casts, top-tier showrunners, cinema-level special effects, and global location shooting, but neither has been particularly impressive in their freshmen seasons.
The next big budget release for Amazon will be “Homecoming,” starring Julia Roberts, and has already received mixed reviews from critics. Its budget is undisclosed, but Roberts is rumored to be earning $600,000 per episode.
The biggest success and only significant bright spot of quality for Amazon original content is Emmy darling “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The show is created, written, directed, and produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who has praised Amazon for giving her the freedom and budget to make the project the way she wanted. Perhaps this is what allows “Maisel” to be great.
Beyond “Mrs. Maisel,” however, there are some pretty obvious problems with Amazon’s big-budget content. “Jack Ryan” is the first Clancy adaptation not based on an actual novel, and it is the only version of the late author’s characters that he did not consult on. It suffers from a lack of depth often found in big-budget action movies.
For reference, “Patriot Games,” the 1992 film adaptation of Clancy’s novel, cost $45 million (approximately $80 million in 2018). It grossed $178 million ($318 million in 2018) worldwide, and was critically acclaimed.
Committing $70 million to an eight-episode project about a novelist’s characters without his own story seems like an obvious risk. Had this been developed into a two-hour Jack Ryan feature film, it would have been similar to “Shadow Recruit” in its level of enjoyment and raked in tons of money at the box office. The series wasn’t bad, but I do not expect to see it nominated for much beyond special effects awards.
“The Romanoffs” is the biggest eyebrow-raiser for Amazon thus far. The $70 million price tag was initially meant to be shared with The Weinstein Company, but following rape accusations against mogul Harvey Weinstein, Amazon chose to sever all ties to the disgraced executive and shoulder the entire financial burden of the project.
At this same time, Amazon creative director Roy Price, who brought “The Romanoffs” and Amazon together, was dismissed amid his own allegations of inappropriate conduct. The Amazon creative department was steeped in turmoil, yet production of the incredibly ambitious “Romanoffs” went into fast-forward. The result is a disjointed effort whose moments of cinema-level greatness are largely overshadowed by its lack of story flow and tediously long episodes.
Grand ambition and internal conflict seem to have blinded Amazon’s creative team from the simple reality of what TV shows need to be in order to draw massive viewership. Streaming television has certainly changed a lot of things about the way people watch, but viewers always want basic elements from TV shows, regardless of how they watch them.
Episodic shows should always have a connection to previous and future episodes. That is the main thing that separates movies from series. Great cinematography is wonderful, but on the small, home screen people tune in for a captivating, intriguing story.
With Apple positioned to enter the competitive streaming market, and every cable network preparing to do the same, Amazon will have a lot more competition than Netflix and Hulu. With so many choices, it seems unlikely viewers will choose an increasingly expensive Amazon Prime membership just to stream one or two series a year. Amazon’s high-dollar ambition has certainly created several visually stunning series, but with rare exception, it has not yet found a way to create compelling narrative that leaves viewers begging for another season.