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Amazon Prime Video Channels: a first rough draft of unbundled TV

There’s lots to watch in Prime Video’s individually priced Channels offerings, but the end result could be more coherent.

Amazon Prime Video Channels: a first rough draft of unbundled TV
[Screenshot: courtesy of Amazon]

Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service is not quite à la carte TV done right, but it’s getting there.

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Prime Video currently lacks Netflix’s bajillion hours of originals or Hulu’s great TV catalog. Amazon is trying to remedy that with a new studio chief, a $250 million deal for a Lord of the Rings series, and a major focus on a service-within-the service called Channels. In total, it hopes such efforts will turn Prime Video into the one streaming service to rule them all.

Channels now offers a menu of 140 channels that are individually priced and available to watch within Prime Video’s apps for TV and mobile platforms. It doesn’t amount to an unbundled equivalent of cable TV: For instance, you can’t subscribe to the cable versions of Lifetime, Hallmark, or TLC. You can, however, get Lifetime Movie Club, Hallmark Movies Now, and TLC Say Yes, as well as other hyper-focused channels, all without being forced to pay for anything you’ll never watch.

To get a sense of how Prime Video and Channels function together, I signed up for a bunch of seven-day trials and committed to watch as much new content as I could cram into a workweek. The results were mixed, but the areas that need improvement–mainly interface and recommendations–are areas where Amazon generally excels when it focuses money and expertise on a product, as it’s now doing with streaming video. Here’s what I learned.

Monday: Start at the beginning

Before diving into Channels, I wanted to kick off the week with something light from the main Prime Video catalog, so I opt for the half-hour comedy The Tick, about a blue-suited superhero and his doofy sidekick. The series is easy to find on my Amazon Fire HD 8 tablet and easy to jump back to when I switch midway through the first episode to the Prime Video app on my iPhone 8. The MCU takes up most of the superhero room in my brain, but this is a definite maybe.

Amazon has not enabled in-app purchasing from within the Prime Video apps for iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV–due to the 30% commission Apple would take–but I have no trouble adding HBO ($15 a month) on Amazon’s website through the Safari browser on my iPhone 8 and hopping back to the Prime Video app to watch the first episode of new Roman à Rupert family drama Succession. The reviews are great. Brian Cox pees on the floor in the first 90 seconds, and everybody is mean to everybody. Two thumbs up!

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After watching episodes of The Tick and Succession, both shows now appear as the first two items in “Watch Next,” which is the first content row of the Prime Video app on every device platform. I also see several new rows now, including “HBO Featured Movies,” “HBO Harry Potter: The Complete Collection,” and “Because You Watched The Tick,” which recommends other Prime Video shows.

Tuesday: It’s a busy news day

On Day 2 of my Prime Video week, Donald Trump is in Singapore and the media world awaits news on the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, so I start the day with CBS All Access ($10) and watch a few minutes of CBS This Morning. I also catch a few minutes of business news on Cheddar ($3), the live CNBC-for-millennials channel.

Prime Video is oriented more toward video on demand than live streaming, with episodic TV and movies playing a far more important role than news or sports. CBS All Access, for example, includes CBS, the CBSN news channel, and the CBS Sports HQ sports news channel on most platforms, but the latter two are not available on Prime Video. Live streamers like Bloomberg, Newsy, PeopleTV, and IGN are also unavailable on Prime Video.

CBS All Access is an interesting test case for where streaming video could go. The service includes current seasons of just about all of CBS’s broadcast programming–comedy, drama, reality, news, and late-night-on-demand and commercial-free the day after air. Also available are originals like Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Fight, plus a live CBS feed in most markets.

In the afternoon, I start digging into premium-cable channels. I watch the first two episodes of New York restaurant drama Sweetbitter on Starz ($9), the first episode of New York Times behind-the-scenes docuseries The Fourth Estate on Showtime ($9), and the first episode of U.K. crime series Rellik on Cinemax ($10).

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Wednesday: TV is the bomb diggity

Cable channels have operator deals that prevent them from streaming their current programming outside of the cable bundle, but several are turning their catalogs into Prime Video services. Do you like Lifetime movies? I do not–Britney Ever After lost me at Timberlake calling her “the bomb diggity”–but Lifetime Movie Club ($4) has more commercial-free Menendez: Blood Brothers and Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret than you have Sunday afternoons to kill.

The cable spinoff services are laser-focused. You want Hallmark movies? There’s Hallmark Movies Now ($6). History documentaries? History Vault ($5). Nature documentaries? Smithsonian Earth ($4). TLC wedding shows? TLC Say Yes ($4). Sundance Now ($7) is more my speed; it’s becoming a great destination for indie shows like This Close, a romantic dramedy starring two deaf actors and one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

Thursday: Around the world in a day

International channels should be an area for a global enterprise like Amazon to distinguish itself, but Prime Video is just getting started. Sling TV and Xfinity X1 both offer close to 400 foreign-language networks, but Prime Video has fewer than a dozen. On Latin American service Pantaya ($6), none of the recent films I sample have English subtitles. Comedy No Maches Frida, starring Martha Higareda from Netflix’s Altered Carbon, is marked as having English subtitles but actually doesn’t. Dios mío!

Bollywood-centric Eros Now ($8) and Korean service DramaFever ($5) both have large film and TV catalogs but lack consistent labeling for English subtitles. Same with Russian-language services TV1000 Russkoe Kino ($10) and Go Russia ($8), which apparently hasn’t made it onto the Trump-Putin agenda yet. Prime Video’s language controls themselves aren’t super intuitive, either; I still haven’t found the subtitles setting on Roku.

Friday: Movie night (if you can find one)

Prime Video has a deeper film catalog than Netflix or Hulu, and the Channels lineup’s major strength is also film. HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax all have many more movies than TV shows, and Channels services Tribeca Shortlist ($5), Strand Releasing ($5), Magnolia Selects ($5), Cohen Media ($5), and Fandor ($4) are all inexpensive, smartly curated and highly differentiated services that are constantly adding new titles.

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The biggest issue with Channels is that they feel like islands unto themselves rather than a deeply integrated part of Prime Video. As I subscribed to more services over the course of the week, the user experience didn’t aggregate them into recommendations across the services. I just got more and more content rows–“Starz Comedy Movies,” “Pantaya Featured Movies in Spanish,” “HBO Featured TV.”

When Prime Video based a row on something I had watched–“More Like The Tick“–the recommendations came only from Prime Video’s home catalog. Amazon even tried to sell me content from services I was already subscribed to, with rows like “Buy Recommended Comedy TV” that includes Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here and HBO’s Silicon Valley.

Amazon is clearly onto something with Prime Video. A recent study by market researcher The Diffusion Group suggests that two-thirds of Showtime and Starz’s digital subscribers and half of HBO’s digital subscribers come from Prime Video. The convenience of adding and deleting à la carte services within a single interface will undoubtedly lead to more sampling and subscribers over time within the Prime Video platform.

As a cohesive user experience, though, Prime Video is still less than the sum of its many parts.

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