WWJD? For Starters, A $715M Passion Project

Imagine if Amazon founder Jeff Bezos liked Broadway musicals.  He probably would have bought the state of Oklahoma, if for no other reason that to restage it,

Imagine if he liked procedural dramas.  Murder, She Wrote would probably be making a comeback.  (Hey, Angela Lansbury could do both).

But he happens to like science fiction and tales of mythology.  A LOT.  And he really does like being a media entreprenuer.

A friend and former colleague knew Jeff was a huge fan of the Syfy series THE EXPANSE, which was a modest performer for three seasons on the cable network,  Ratings mattered little; Jeff simply loved the show.  Prime Video bought the series and produced three more seasons and 26 more epsiodes.  A few college educations were paid for based solely on his passion.

And today, the biggest investment in a single television series is debuting on Prime, a series adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS.   RINGS OF POWER, which has the blessings of the Tolkien family if not the presence of theatrical director Peter Jackson, cost a quarter-billion for Prime to secure global rights, and just south of half a billion to produce the first eight episodes of its inaugural season, a process made all the more painful by the disruption and overages related to COVID.    Two episodes have dropped already, an ideally timed diversion for a holiday weekend smack dab in the middle of a massive heat wave.

I’m not even going to attempt to review it; while I’ve seen the movies, I’m aware there’s not a Hobbit to be found in this version of Middle Earth, and the internet is already abuzz about whether Gandolf is actually The Stranger, one of the protaganists that emerges in these opening episodes.  Those that are reviewing it so far are complimentary for the most part, while there are some complaints on pacing the production quality is considered exemplary.

What we can discuss is whether or not it will achieve a measure of success, and that all depends upon how one defines it,  As we know in the streaming world, the simple concept of measuring audience is both incomplete and parochial, and that’s especially true in the case of Prime Video.  Most of its originals have never captured the size and scope of Netflix’s hits, and the nature of its distribution and the frailities of Nielsen measurement make any third party reporting suspect at best.  And unlike HBO/HBO Max, there isn’t the overlay of a 50-year old linear pay network to augment reported performance that already has annointed this summer’s other mega-gambit, HOUSE OF THE DRAGON, as a monster hit.

As Brandon Katz of THE WRAP meticulously reported yesterday, there are a number of differeing goals and benchmarks confronting LOTR:ROP.  They include:

Viewership

If you spend half a billion dollars on eight hours of TV, you want that content to be seen — so Amazon will be expecting “The Rings of Power” to outdraw all of its previous original hits, like the superhero saga “The Boys” (whose last season racked up 864.3 million minutes viewed in its first four weeks of availability, according to Nielsen) and “Reacher” (781.1 million). It’s worth noting that Nielsen, which measures U.S. streaming viewership in minutes watched, only covers TV viewership and doesn’t account for streaming via phone, tablet or laptop.

Now, some of Prime Video’s biggest shows were released all at once while others debuted with a couple episodes before moving to a weekly drop of new episodes. But either way, they provide a baseline for the viewership “The Rings of Power” needs to generate in its first month to be deemed a hit. (The series will release two episodes on Friday, and then one per week across its eight-episode first season.)

Subscriber growth

Streaming services are largely judged on the volume of subscribers signed up and exclusive new series are the biggest driver of subscription growth. Prime Video doesn’t release subscriber numbers other than saying last year more than 200 million Prime members worldwide streamed content (though many sign up just for free Amazon shipping).

Two media analysts believe Amazon is likely aiming to add between 3 million and 5 million new subscribers globally on the strength of “Rings of Power.” Another analyst thought that number could be as high as 10 million, while an insider at a competing service thought that 4.5 million new subs that stay with Prime for 12 months would be considered a win.

Audience engagement

Since Amazon isn’t focused on traditional outcomes like viewership for advertisers or driving up subscriber numbers, building audience engagement and buzz will be a key factor to funnel streaming viewers to Prime product sales, which is one of Amazon’s main underlying goals.

Here, the tech giant is already off to a strong start. “The Rings of Power” is the most-anticipated show debut in Amazon Prime Video’s history, according to Whip Media’s TV Time analysis of its 21 million users (TV Time tracks both the number of followers a title attracts within the app and viewer interest as users can mark within the app if they intend to watch a given title). Sixteen days out from its release, “Rings” was lapping other major Prime Video original hits “The Wheel of Time,” “Jack Ryan,” “Reacher” and “The Boys” in terms of user anticipation in the same pre-release span.

Critical Reception (and Awards)

Another factor in the show’s success is just how well it’s embraced by critics — as well as members of the Television Academy. The original “Game of Thrones” snagged 59 Emmys and 160 total nominations over its eight-year run — and Salke and Co. are eager to match or even outdo HBO’s new spinoff series “House of the Dragon.”

As of this writing, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” holds an 87% score on aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes based on 79 critic reviews, just above the 83% grade for “House of the Dragon.” On Metacritic, the show also edges out its HBO rival, with a 71/100 score compared to 68/100 for “House of the Dragon.” There are no “negative” reviews for “The Rings of Power” as classified by Metacritic so far.

Katz has laid out the landscape intelligentl, but, honestly, for the most part it’s moot.  The series already has a five-season commitment and production on season two is already set for next month.  In all, more than $1B has been committed to production.  We already covered on Monday how ubiquitous promotion is elsewhere in the Amazon family; you can’t avoid a splash ad when you order diapers for delivery and it’s likely the box in comes in will feature the show’s logo.  I haven’t been to Whole Foods lately, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a ring-shaped gluten free cereal with the 365 brand turns up at some point.

It’s been said by many in the know that Bezos started Prime Video strictly because he wanted to win awards.  Well, thanks to Casey Affleck’s performance in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, his studio has won a Best Actor Oscar, and both TRANSPARENT and THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL have won multiple Golden Globes awards.   Early returns would suggest a few more are ahead.

And, besides, Jeff WANTS to make LORD OF THE RINGS.   While he’s stepped down as active CEO, it’s still very much his sandbox.  And as Prime will ultimately share only what they want us to know, it’s doubtful any objective data will emerge to challenge the validity of his decision.

Put this in perspective.  Based upon the ratio of investment to his net worth, Bezos is risking only slightly more on this production as I’m putting down on my fantasy football team this weekend.  And, frankly, he’s recruited better talent than I’m likely to get with the eleventh pick in my snake draft.

Oh, speaking of football…that’s Jeff’s other passion.  His current squeeze, Lauren Sanchez, used to cover NFL games for FOX.  Now she just covers (or uncovers, depending upon which tabloid you read) Jeff’s ass.  Thursday Night Football is also getting a big push and investment.

So watch if you choose; I’ll probably check it out at some point.  And yes, we’ll follow its trajectory; it’s a big enough deal to warrant it.  But to the J who arguably has more influence over media these days than that other J, what we think won’t matter much.

Maybe he’ll develop an interest in game shows at some point.

Until next time…

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