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With its original shows so far, Amazon is no alpha

Early popular reception to Amazon's original series like "Alpha House" suggests Netflix may be in another league.

An ad poster with the four stars of "Alpha House" on a station wall as a subway speeds by
An "Alpha House" ad in the New York subway system.
Joan E. Solsman/CNET

How many times have you heard someone fess up to binge-watching hours of "House of Cards" or "Orange Is the New Black" from Netflix? Probably a lot.

Been hearing the same enthused admissions about poor self-control over Amazon's originals? Probably not, according to an early read on the social media reaction to the online retailer's first series.

Fizziology, a social-media research firm focused on entertainment, looked at the response on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and blogs to both "Alpha House," which premiered November 15, and "House of Cards," which premiered in February, during their first weekend online. "Alpha House" had fewer than 3,500 posts on social media compared with nearly 21,000 for "House of Cards." Netflix's latest original series, "Orange Is the New Black," had 31,000 its weekend of release.

The tenor of the "Alpha House" chatter didn't work in Amazon's favor. Fizziology called it highly neutral, with only 16 percent of the conversations positive and a relatively high 7 percent negative centered on politics and portrayals of Republicans. "House of Cards" had 62 percent positive feeds.

Jen Handley, the operating chief of Fizziology, said "Alpha House" social-media buzz in the first weekend also lacked indicators of demand. "There was a lack of conversation about needing Amazon Prime to see the rest of the episodes," she said. "If there was a demand for the show, people would be up in arms about seeing the rest."

Amazon lets nonmembers watch the first three episodes of its original shows, but the rest are reserved for Prime, which costs $79 a year and includes two-day shipping on some purchases as well as premium streaming video.

While the company is making some episodes available for free, it's holding some of them back from everybody: in a departure from the Netflix model of putting all episodes of an original series up at once for subscribers to binge if they like, Amazon only made the first three episodes of its series available at one time, and it is rolling out the rest one-by-one every Friday, like network TV does.

That constraint help back social chatter about the shows, but Amazon's would have you believe it didn't hold back viewing. The Tuesday after Amazon debuted "Alpha House," the company said it was the most-watched show on Amazon through the weekend.

But what does that really mean? Amazon has made the same pronouncement following other notable video releases, such as when it started carrying CBS' "Under the Dome" just five days after broadcast, for example.

Amazon cloisters its numbers, so it's hard to tell how many people would make "Alpha House" the most-watched show on Amazon. One way to gauge it is to look at the possible size of Amazon Prime's membership. Amazon simply said it has "millions" of Prime members, but analysts estimate that Prime has about 11 million to 12 million members. (Netflix has more than 43 million worldwide.)

However, analysts also say anecdotal evidence points to a subsect of Prime subscribers being unaware that streaming video is even part of their subscription, and its hard to believe that more than a fraction of Prime subscribers watched the new shows.

Another way to gauge is to look at Amazon's traffic as a whole. Jim Nail, a Forrester analyst, called Amazon's front page a huge, built-in promotion machine, with a hundred million plus visitors monthly.


"Amazon has the advantage in the promotion department," he said, since Netflix US user base is much lower. "But people are only going to Netflix when they're thinking about watching something," he added. Amazon is likely a long way from people coming home from a long day, plopping on their couch and turning to Amazon to decide what they want to watch, Nail said.

Further complicating comparisons between the two streaming contenders is Netflix's own opacity about viewing. Netflix discloses the size of its membership rolls, but it doesn't comment on how many people watch its originals specifically.

A half-hour comedy on premium subscription cable, the kind that Netflix and Amazon are out to replicate, could garner about 3 million viewers an episode, in the case of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" across live and video-on-demand watching in the last season. HBO's "Girls" notched about 1.6 million viewers over three airings of its second-season premiere earlier this year.

For Amazon and "Alpha House," it's a stretch to believe between 10 and 25 percent of Prime subscribers made the new show part of their weekend viewing. But look wider to Amazon's total universe of customers, and only getting a fraction to give the show a try is enough for initial ratings to rival that of a premium cable series.

But if traffic is the the way to measure how Amazon stacks up with Netflix, Amazon has a long way to go to close the gap. A recent study by Sandvine, which runs fixed and mobile data networks worldwide, found that Netflix commands the largest amount of North American Internet traffic of any Web property, 31 percent of the total volume during the peak part of the day. Amazon Video represented just 1.61 percent. The findings were based on data before Amazon's debut of original programs.

Amazon's strategy promoting "Alpha House" underscores the audience it's aiming to hook. It has made the show a staple on the home page, targeting people who are already shopping at Amazon to start watching the shows.

It makes sense. Analysts estimate that Prime subscribers spend between two and four times as much on Amazon as nonmembers do. Additional features like original shows could be an attraction to those shoppers who aren't yet Prime subscribers, and a large proportion of the people who sign up for free trial memberships end up as paying subscribers.

Since neither Amazon nor Netflix have any advertisers to impress with ratings numbers, it's unlikely we'll be hearing viewer counts anytime soon. Amazon needs to impress only people who like to shop, but with only traffic and social media numbers to rely on for now, it looks like Amazon originals aren't impressing very many people yet.