This past weekend, Amazon’s streaming service laid down one of its trump cards: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s follow-up to one of the most acclaimed dramas in television history. The Romanoffs had all the makings of a Peak TV blockbuster. The eight-episode season boasts an A-list cast, including Aaron Eckhart, John Slattery, and Corey Stoll. Its $50 million budget enabled on-location shooting across the globe, from Paris to Mexico City. Presiding over it all is a marquee writer-director delivering on three-plus years of pent-up anticipation. Add it all together and you get the maximum cultural capital that Amazon’s seemingly unlimited money can buy.
And yet, for the past few days, all I’ve heard about is The Haunting of Hill House, the Netflix horror series based on a Shirley Jackson novel and created by Mike Flanagan, director of previous streaming sensations Hush and Gerald’s Game. The Haunting of Hill House didn’t necessarily have much advance hype, but part of the magic of Netflix is that it never had to. A seasonal craving for jump scares and a prime spot on the service’s front page are all it needs.
In the absence of Nielsen ratings, I turned to imperfect but useful yardsticks like Google Trends, which bore out my anecdotal evidence by pegging search interest in The Romanoffs as roughly half that in Haunting. Similarly, at the time of publishing, Haunting boasted 8,000 IMDb reviews to The Romanoffs’ 443, and 464 Rotten Tomatoes user ratings to The Romanoffs’ 38. The Ringer also reached out to Crimson Hexagon, a consumer insights company that uses AI to track posts across social media; from a survey of Twitter and Instagram, the firm found that while discussion of The Romanoffs briefly outstripped that of Hill House in advance of their premieres, Hill House’s buzz has continued to grow in the days since to around 5,000 posts per day, while The Romanoffs’ has petered out to less than a thousand. Each of these tools has their blind spots and biases — IMDb’s audience, for instance, skews young and masculine, exactly the group inclined toward a pulpy horror series. Cumulatively, however, they start to form a useful juxtaposition of instant engagement versus a much more muted reception.
Streaming television’s sheer density has created a sort of small-screen parallel to the film industry concept of opening-weekend box office. What’s at stake in the crucial first few days of a show’s lifespan isn’t revenue; as television executives are quick to remind us, streaming is all about the long game, investing in a show so that it will linger in the archives in perpetuity. But the overwhelming volume of Peak TV creates a now-or-never feeling of scarcity when it comes to another finite, all-important resource: audiences’ attention. It’s a more intangible competition than the hard numbers of a box office gross, yet it’s one where Netflix seems to be at a definite, possibly insurmountable advantage.
The informal face-off between The Romanoffs and The Haunting of Hill House could easily be written off as a fluke, or simply a case of comparing apples and oranges — high-concept realist dramedy versus populist genre fare. But this weekend wasn’t exactly an isolated incident. Last month, Amazon and Netflix dropped two series with far more in common than just their release date. Both Forever, on Amazon, and BoJack Horseman, on Netflix, could be categorized as highbrow comedies with beloved stars (Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen on the one hand, Will Arnett and Alison Brie on the other) and an impeccable pedigree for a certain kind of joke nerd.
As with Haunting and The Romanoffs, there are caveats to these parallels; BoJack is in its fifth season, and Forever arguably hamstrung its own marketing by keeping its own premise under wraps. But they overlap enough for a side-by-side measurement to have its merits. Sure enough, when they were released, Google pegged searches for BoJack at quintuple those for Forever, and Rotten Tomatoes features nearly four times the reviews for BoJack’s latest season as Forever’s first. (IMDb doesn’t separate shows into seasons.) Forever’s broad title makes social tracking difficult, though Crimson Hexagon found that BoJack Horseman peaked at more than 10,000 posts the day of its premiere, while Forever — or at least posts that specify the Forever airing on Amazon, not the existential concept — topped out in just the mid-hundreds.
Here is where I must reiterate that neither Amazon nor Netflix release ratings data. Still, as Amazon’s recent marathon Emmy campaign on behalf of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel goes to show, looser concepts like buzz and prestige are clearly valuable to streaming services, especially ones trying to catch up to Netflix’s considerable head start. Savvily recognizing that trophies are easier to buy than eyeballs, Amazon waged a ubiquitous, months-long, and ultimately successful argument on behalf of the zippy period piece. Yet outside the Emmys’ limited, gameable terrain, shows continue to vie for an audience. These occasional skirmishes, particularly Netflix’s winning streak, underline a hard truth in television’s latest frontier: With a streaming service, the content itself is only half the battle.
Both The Romanoffs and Forever are ambitious, if divisive, series backed by A-list talent. After an early success with Transparent and a few years of stumbling with middle-of-the-road, undistinguished series like The Man in the High Castle and Sneaky Pete, Amazon seems to be hitting a creative stride as a source of tony, curated television — the digital HBO to Netflix’s unholy mashup. “You won’t see some giant volume play,” Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke told the Television Critics Association in July. “I think of us as an alternative to some of those places.” (It’s too early in Salke’s tenure to judge her creative impact, though the NBC alumna’s replacement of Roy Price, who resigned a year ago in the wake of multiple sexual harassment accounts, has contributed to an overall perception of stability.) Still to come are highly anticipated releases Good Omens, a BBC coproduction; Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young; and somewhere on the horizon, that billion-dollar Lord of the Rings show.
Yet streaming services aren’t just content providers. They’re also content distributors, and content marketers, and before any of these things, pieces of technology. From the outside, Netflix appears to have a better handle on this reality than any of its competitors — and as a result, concluded that the volume game is the only one in town.
When I half-rhetorically, half-sincerely asked whether anyone who followed me on Twitter had watched The Romanoffs and didn’t have a professional obligation to, one of the responses felt especially telling: “I’m watching The Haunting of Hill House. Before that, Maniac. Next up: Hold the Dark and Apostle. Also, Kindergarten Teacher looks interesting. Then Travelers should be here. Netflix has all my attention, but I do like Amazon Prime’s free shipping.” Social media is a manifestly poor gauge of how popular a given series is, but Netflix’s all-encompassing user experience applies to all of its subscribers, not just those with Twitter accounts. The purpose of Netflix’s mind-boggling quantity and diversity is to create a self-contained ecosystem that fulfills all of one’s entertainment needs, from trashy reality to thought-provoking nonfiction to silly animation. There’s no need to go elsewhere: not to another website, not to traditional television, not to the movie theater. That one-stop-shop simplicity is as much a part of Netflix’s sales pitch as any individual offering.
Netflix even takes care of the process of sifting through its formidable selection via its all-important homepage. Prime placement — or better yet, a top-of-the-line banner, complete with an autoplay trailer — obviates the need for as much of a traditional marketing push. Subscribers know when a show is coming out and where to find it because they’re told as much, often on their way to watch another show, which they know about because … you know the rest. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
Compare this with Amazon, which has to balance promoting its original programming with promoting … everything else it sells, which is to say, virtually everything. Amazon’s video service, technically a subset of its Prime membership option, became available as a stand-alone product only in 2016; a landing page at amazon.com/video with a layout that roughly mimics Netflix’s is also a relatively recent addition. Even now, Amazon’s user experience remains markedly less smooth and easy to navigate than its primary competition’s, a fact so widely accepted that Salke herself addressed it at the same TCA panel, promising imminent upgrades. It’s hardly the data-gathering, “taste-clustering” machine that Netflix subsequently spins into successes like Hill House. Netflix has harnessed its algorithm into a formidable generator of proven resonance: Stranger Things went over well, so here’s more where that came from. Amazon, for better or for worse, retains a distinctly human touch.
It’s difficult for Amazon to use its streaming service as advertising for its original series when the streaming service itself still needs to be advertised, usually to consumers whose primary association with the company is fast delivery and cheap essentials. That a company as rich in resources as Jeff Bezos’s empire — one of the few entities, along with Apple, that can realistically play in Netflix’s league — still lags noticeably behind streaming’s biggest player drives home just how entrenched Netflix’s advantage is. And as Netflix’s spending continues unimpeded, its individual products’ edge over other fledgling shows seems only likely to grow. What’s one series held up against an entire apparatus?