When you make a television pilot, your audience is a group of network executives who make final decisions and test audiences who are used as a barometer of how America will respond to said pilots. It’s why pilots tend to be bigger, and broader, and in general more attention-grabbing—for better or for worse—than episodes that come after.
In this way, Amazon’s “democratic” pilot process—in which they make their pilots available online for audience voting before making final pick-up decisions—is not necessarily out of the ordinary. Writers and producers have always known that their work would need to meet dueling expectations of executives and audiences, so we have yet to see a completely new approach to television pilots emerge from the process.
However, the way each of this year’s comedy and drama pilots—I’m excluding the kids’ shows—engages with the specificity of the Amazon experience has been particularly fascinating for me, even in its subtlety. Part of this stems from the overdetermined nature of the audience feedback within rhetoric surrounding the series: in Amazon’s universe, customers are selecting what shows go on the air. Forget for a moment their Golden Globe-winning Transparent drew the least customer votes and scored the lowest customer scores during its pilot process—in Amazon’s mind, this is about the audience, and so it makes sense for producers to angle harder in that direction and play to their assumed test audience.
Yet this is further amplified by the fact that there is even less clarity than usual regarding what precisely Amazon is looking for. Whereas working with a broadcast network or established cable channel gives you a basic sense of brand identity and programming strategy, Amazon has been all over the map, making it up as they go along. While we can start to see trends in their focus on Transparent’s awards success, we still have no clear sense of who their perceived audience is, or what their demographic priorities are. Do they want shows for men or women? Are they privileging comedy or drama? We don’t even know how many shows they’re willing to pick up, given that they have no “schedule” with empty slots, and have theoretically bottomless pockets from which to fund their move into original programming.
It’s plausible that those creating this cycle of Amazon pilots know more than we do about Amazon’s plans, but the fact remains that the audience is the clearer target, and there are a range of strategies that the pilots unfurl to ensure positive responses and high scores in the areas that they believe count most—or at least count a little—with Amazon.