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When Television Isn’t On TV

This article is more than 5 years old.

Move over, Netflix. Amazon Studios is in the (production) house.

Netflix has gotten lots of buzz for its “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” series, which the streaming video service has produced and distributed wholesale, releasing an entire all-you-can-eat season of episodes at one time.

Now comes online retail giant Amazon, which has just launched its first original series — the Garry Trudeau-created “Alpha House.” Last Friday, Amazon started streaming the first three episodes free. (It’ll cost you to see the other eight episodes of the season.)

Clearly, television isn't just on TV anymore.

In fact, very little of what Amazon Studios is doing has followed traditional television practices. The first wave of programs was essentially chosen not by Amazon executives but by Amazon customers, about a million of whom viewed and voted on 14 pilot episodes posted on Amazon’s website last spring. Out of that digital bake-off came five new series, the first of which to debut is “Alpha House.”

These platforms are not just challenging broadcast and cable networks. They’re challenging the TV medium itself.

(Another winner is “Beta,” a comedy about tech geeks in Silicon Valley. Alpha and Beta, eh? Next up — Yo Gamma Gamma!?)

“Alpha House” has its origins in a 2007 New York Times piece about a quartet of Democrats who shared a house in D.C. — Rep. George Miller, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Bill Delahunt. That’s turned into a 2013 fake foursome of Republican senators: Robert Bettencourt (PA), Louis Laffer (NV), Gil John Biggs (NC), and Andy Guzman (FL).

After checking out the first three episodes, here are a few production notes:

• It’s not every show that can make Bill Murray crushingly unfunny in under 60 seconds. “Alpha House” does.

• Note to Garry Trudeau: Having the Council for Normal Marriage present the Say No to Sodomy award to a painfully stereotyped family values/apparently gay Louis Laffer isn’t clever. It’s just playing to the cheap seats.

• John Goodman’s Gil John Biggs chews so much scenery, he should floss between takes.

• “Alpha House’ executive producer Jonathan Alter has been crowing about how realistic the Beltway boyos find the series. Too bad realistic doesn’t guarantee funny.

• Full disclosure: I stopped watching 4:34 into the third episode.

Amazon plans to spend a reported $100 million on original content this year, about 10 percent of its overall content expenditures. (Netflix will spend a reported $2.5 billion on content this year.)

But the bigger picture is that these platforms are not just challenging broadcast and cable networks. They’re challenging the TV medium itself.

Media consumers nowadays want portability, customization, instantaneous access. Amazon and Netflix provide all of that.

But here’s what they’ll never provide: Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald live. The 9/11 terror attacks in real time.

Only TV can do that.

Back in the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan categorized television as a cool medium: low definition, high participation. Because of the medium’s grainy visuals, viewers had to knit the images together — literally connect the dots.

But what if, McLuhan was asked, television developed a higher-definition image? Would it then be a hot medium (high definition, low participation)?

Then, McLuhan responded, it wouldn’t be TV.

That was McLuhan all over: contrary, arbitrary . . .  visionary. Because today’s high-def/LED/plasma devices do seem to be a different medium.

And “Alpha House” is yet another.


This program aired on November 21, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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