The CBS-ification of Amazon Prime Video

Amazon’s ‘Citadel,’ the spy series that cost more than $250 million, failed to top Nielsen’s weekly streaming chart.
Amazon’s ‘Citadel,’ the spy series that cost more than $250 million, failed to top Nielsen’s weekly streaming chart. Courtesy of Prime.
Julia Alexander
July 11, 2023

These days, the biggest stories about Amazon Prime Video focus on the platform’s biggest misses. Citadel, the spy series that cost more than $250 million and yet failed to top Nielsen’s weekly streaming chart, is the latest example. Rings of Power, Amazon’s big Lord of the Rings series that was bested by HBO’s House of the Dragon each week last fall, is another. 

Of course, it’s unfair to compare Prime Video to the other big streamers. It’s not a new service from a legacy media company, like Paramount+, Peacock, Disney+, or Max. Nor is it a standalone pure play platform like Netflix or Hulu. On the contrary, Prime Video, like Apple TV+, is a shingle atop a multi-trillion-dollar technology company, designed to increase overall value. Sure, all these companies hope that streaming pixie dust will filter down to sister business units, like theme parks or merchandise. But Amazon is unique in looking at the number of Prime customers who sign up through Prime Video, or who use Prime Video and then shop on its e-commerce site, as a key performance indicator.

So it’s not enough to simply glance at Nielsen and judge whether Prime Video’s most expensive shows have flopped miserably. It’s a poor representation of truth for a global show. The better question is whether they are working for Amazon. And if not, what does Amazon need Prime Video to do differently? To better understand what Prime Video could be instead of what it’s trying to be, executives might look at what Netflix has learned over the past few years: the service doesn’t need to go big or go home. Instead, success lies in optimizing the overlapping audience that exists beyond the marquee titles. 

Size Does Not Always Matter

Over the past several years, more than a few streaming executives have adopted the mantra that more is good, and expensive is better. After all, the success of Game of Thrones inspired a number of high budget imitations—See, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time, and Sandman, to name a few. Marvel’s dominance in theaters fueled similar fantasy and sci-fi spectacles, such as The Mandalorian, House of the Dragon, and Stranger Things, which all had $100 million-plus season budgets. As the supply side shifted, so did demand. Audiences seemingly wanted more high-caliber programming, and they wanted it all year round. 

As the high-priced content scaled, many of these shows became commoditized. Secret Invasion, which like other Marvel Disney+ series reportedly cost an arm and a leg to make, is performing well compared to other Marvel shows when looking at premiere demand, but that isn’t going to make much of a dent in Disney+ subscribers. It’s catering to an audience that already exists. Silo, Apple TV+’s critically acclaimed sci-fi series, may have been renewed for a second season but is it moving the needle on subscriber acquisition or churn at the rate needed to justify its cost, or is it another expensive sci-fi series on a streaming platform that doesn’t necessarily need another expensive sci-fi series?

Then there’s Citadel. The show is performing well in India, according to third party research data, including from Parrot Analytics, where I work as director of strategy. In India, Citadel has 115 percent higher demand than the rest of the world, and is currently ranked as the 26th most in-demand series in the country. It also skews heavily male (just under 60 percent) and heavily millennial (just under 40 percent). Concerningly, however, Google Trends related searches for Citadel are all for BitTorrent and other piracy sites. People in India are interested in Citadel, but they might not be interested in Prime Video

But Citadel needed to work in India. Amazon was essentially banking on making it into a reverse Squid Game-style hit: Instead of launching a show in one region that unexpectedly found a massive global audience, Amazon Studios head Jen Salke hoped to engineer an international sensation with planned installments around the world. Of course, any ambition on that scale was always going to be expensive. And given the all-in price for the series, including marketing, it’s hard to suggest that Citadel’s success in India amounts to a win overall. Going for global is a high-wire act.

In Their Prime

Who is the audience for Prime Video? First, the current audience is mostly male, and slightly older, which you can see reflected in the popularity of what’s promoted on the homepage—Jack Ryan, Air, and The Grand Tour. Prime Video’s audience shares considerable overlap with Paramount+ in the U.S. (There is also some overlap with Apple TV+ and HBO Max.) And while satire and dystopian series represent high growth genres for Prime Video, true crime, sports, and medical/legal drama series represent high retention. That suggests that Salke can actually lean on cheaper, easily-rewatchable fare while still satisfying her core audience. In the end, bigger isn’t always better.

That doesn’t mean Salke doesn’t need to take huge swings like Citadel or Rings of Power, but it does mean that she doesn’t need so many of them—and, crucially, she needs to deploy those capital-intensive projects wisely. Without syndication as another revenue producing tool, creating a well-balanced slate, efficiently, and built with longevity in mind, is paramount. In streaming, tentpoles are customer acquisition tools, and they should be focused on separate audience clusters as the platforms unearth adjacent cluster content to keep those customers retained. 

Last week, some of the most consumed series for audiences watching Citadel included less expensive, licensed shows like The Blacklist, The Equalizer, and CW’s The Flash, plus Yellowjackets and Queen Charlotte. Not everything needs to cost $100 million; nor should it. And strategically clustering less expensive archival content in support of tentpoles could really synergize Amazon’s $8.5 billion acquisition of MGM. 

Netflix, which is now licensing content from HBO, is a perfect example of a streamer that’s adapted to a more flexible programming strategy. Netflix spent so long trying to be HBO before HBO could be Netflix, but the truth is that Netflix is most successful with broad, middle-of-the-road stories. The Diplomat is a typical procedural; Wednesday elicits the feeling of a CW drama; Firefly Lane is very Lifetime; etcetera. The Canadian comedy Workin Moms, for instance, had a bigger showing than Citadel in the Nielsen chartsand that series is at the end of its run on less than one-hundredth of the budget. 

Netflix hasn’t pivoted away from prestige TV, of course, but unlimited content spending isn’t a viable long term business plan either, and the effort to be more cost efficient means leaning into what works. When we talk about Prime Video’s issues, we tend to focus on a couple of expensive shows and say, “Is this really worth it?” We talk less about what Prime Video is, and even less about what Prime Video should be. The platform has a number of strong shows, like The Boys, Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Jack Ryan, and Reacher. The issue isn’t that Amazon can’t make great TV, it’s that it is seemingly finding it difficult to do efficiently. 

And in 2023, when most outlets are trying to be HBO, the smarter move may be to pivot and lean into becoming something more like CBS—a network that still produces some of the most watched shows on television (that also have a long shelf life on streaming platforms) and is home to a medley of sports, including Sunday football. It sounds exactly like what Prime Video wants to be. 

One way forward for Amazon involves borrowing some thinking from Moneyball. To wit: The streamer needs to focus less on trying to hit home run after home run. There are only so many players with consistent power, and they cost a premium. Instead, Amazon should find a larger group of less-valued but consistent players who actually get on base and provide run support. Audiences love home runs, but they also want to support a team who puts on an exciting game of baseball more often than not—and that’s a game of efficiency. Perhaps that’s not as sexy, but it’s where streaming is headed.