Though Netflix has garnered the lion’s share of attention given to a tech company venturing into original programming, Amazon is nipping at its heels.
You may or may not be a regular watcher of Alpha House or Betas, the two original "prime time" (i.e., adult) series that have full seasons up on Amazon Instant Video. But even if you’re a fan of those, you might have missed the fact that Amazon Studios, as its production arm is called, has made a special commitment to children’s programming. Six kids’ series pilots were produced last year, with three picked up for full-season runs (those series have yet to launch, partly due to the long lead time required by animation). And this past Thursday, Amazon put out a second wave of pilots for kids' shows—five new ones in all, the most popular of which will go to series.
We caught up with Tara Sorensen, who heads up the kids' content division at Amazon Studios, to learn more about playground gossip, that lucrative lower-school demographic, and the first success story of Amazon’s unusual open-door script submission policy.
FAST COMPANY: Why is Amazon so interested in children’s content?
TARA SORENSEN: Families are a big part of Amazon’s customer database, so we wanted to make sure we were providing great content within the Prime universe that they loved. We work with an educational consultant to develop innovative curriculum. We know that mom needs to feel good about what she’s putting in front of the kids, but that also the kids need to fall in love with the characters. In this second round, we’ve expanded into the 6-to-11 demo.
You’ve been in kids’ TV for almost 20 years. How is working for Amazon different?
In many ways, the Amazon experience hasn’t been so different. Though there's definitely a startup mentality—producing 52 half-hours right out of the gate!
Amazon as a brand is still mostly known for retail. Do you have trouble explaining at cocktail parties that you don’t spend your days shipping books?
I definitely have conversations where friends think immediately I work on the retail side. They tell me how much they love Amazon. One went as far as to say, "It’s like a really great boyfriend because it’s always there when it says it’s gonna be. It really delivers, I can always count on it."
How do your kids watch TV?
I have two children aged 7 and 8, and I was seeing the way tablets really change the way they watch TV. Kids don’t have the allegiance today to networks that you and I used to. They’re getting a lot of information from friends, word of mouth. They’re not sitting in front of a linear broadcast anymore.
How do kids learn what they want to watch these days? What’s the playground equivalent of the water cooler?
I can tell you that kids are definitely influenced by older siblings. Even programs they maybe haven’t watched, they’re aware of. As kids get older, they’re not in social media yet, but there are definitely forms of that, with cliques in school. I often ask my kids, "How did you find out about that program?" They usually say, "Oh, so and so was talking about it."
Most networks insist that pilot scripts come in through agents or representatives, but Amazon Studios has an open-door policy, and I understand that yielded a success with this wave of pilots?
David Anaxagoras had an MFA in screenwriting, but he’d given up on it, and has been a preschool teacher the last 15 or 20 years. He decided to give screenwriting one last shot, wrote a script, and uploaded it. It’s called Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street. We were able to secure an Oscar-winning director to direct it. David took off a week of work to be on set, and it was really a treat to see him through the process. At the end of the shoot we asked him what he thought of the process, and he got really emotional. For him it was a dream come true, and he’s still pinching himself now as he waits a decision as to whether or not we’ll push the series into production for a full order.
This interview has been condensed and edited.