Amazon is a data juggernaut, but there are limits to how useful that is when deciding which movies and TV shows to make for Prime Video, according to Joe Lewis, who oversees Amazon’s comedy, drama, and VR.
Listening to audience data can be helpful but also hurtful if used in the wrong way, Lewis explained at a recent MipTV panel.
The big problem is that when you are making a TV show, you aren’t looking for what people want to watch today. It just takes too long from concept to full season. Instead, you are trying to answer the question, “What do people want to watch in a year or two?”
Often, in that quest, you have to look for something that might not be a slam-dunk in the moment. “If you can’t find anything risky about an idea, one to three years later it’s usually behind the curve,” Lewis said. That fact can mean it’s hard to use audience data to validate a particular idea.
The obvious exception to this is with reboots, which Amazon rival Netflix is pumping out at a staggering rate — “Full House,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Arrested Development,” and so on.
But when Amazon uses data, especially when commissioning an entire series versus a pilot, it’s often about assessing the strength of the writer-director, not the concept.
“There are just some people who are right more often than not,” Lewis said. “That’s the kind of data you can look at.”
Live plus 20 years
What is Amazon looking for in that data?
Lewis came back a few times to the idea of “live plus 20 years,” or what people will want to watch over and over again, and will stand the test of time.
Lewis is “only interested in making things that people will watch, and watch for a long time,” he said. If Amazon can rack up a number of these types of shows, its back catalog will continue to get more valuable over time.
That perspective is useful in understanding some of Amazon’s shows that have gotten critical acclaim, like Golden Globe winners “Transparent” and “Mozart in the Jungle,” but haven’t snagged the massive audiences of some of Netflix’s streaming hits.
Amazon is in the business of having people sign up and continue to subscribing to Prime, and there are many metrics the company looks at besides pure audience size. “Transparent” was not the most-viewed pilot for Amazon, but it had an “incredibly high completion rate,” the “re-watch rate was significant,” and the critical feedback was good, Lewis said.
When you are looking for a show that will continue to give you value for decades, those are the right signs.