First came ABC's “Shark Tank,” then came Randi Zuckerberg’s Bravo reality series, “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley." Now there’s “Betas,” a scripted show about a group of geeky 20-something entrepreneurs, which represents Amazon’s first foray into original programming.
“Betas” is one of five original Web series that the everything store hopes will turn its viewers into shoppers. Amazon reportedly sunk as much as $50 million into creating its own content and building its production unit, Amazon Studios, and it spared no expense on recruiting heavyweights like John Goodman and Bill Murray to appear in one of the series, a new political comedy named "Alpha House."
"Betas" is set in Silicon Valley and tracks a group of developers as they code their way to a Facebook rival, or a social network just as addictive. It's hardly a fresh concept (remember HBO's "Silicon Valley"?), but seems noteworthy, as it's one of 14 pilots Amazon posted online last April and one of five it deemed worthy of a full-blown series. (Also notable: Netflix's original programming drew 1.3 million new users, according to its third-quarter earnings report, and profits more than quadrupled from last year.)
As Amazon prepares to take Netflix head-on, it’s fascinating to see shows about entrepreneurs becoming part of its formula. Are office politics and leadership gaffes really the stuff of successful TV? A cursory glance at TV Land would have you believe it, though the story is hardly so simple. As the graveyard of business TV shows has proven (think "Parking Wars"), Amazon is taking a gamble with "Betas," and one it may come to regret.
Last fall, when a spate of fairly new broadcast shows were clamoring for viewers, “Shark Tank” blew them out of the water by giving ABC its best Friday 9 p.m. demo numbers since 2005. Its audience of roughly 7.1 million viewers lapped up the arrogant investors and naïve entrepreneurs who grovelled before them, despite the show being well into its fourth season. And while "Shark Tank" numbers dipped somewhat this year, it still managed to hold its own and even spawn a few copycats.
Over on CNBC, there's Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World, who has a Tuesday 10 p.m. slot for "The Profit," in which he gives struggling companies a $2 million cash infusion in exchange for a nice slice of equity. Then Spike TV has "Bar Rescue," wherein Jon Taffer, a bar and nightclub owner, consults other bar and nightclub owners less successful than he is.
Lifetime's long-running series "Project Runway" might fall in this category, though it's been running for 12 seasons now and hardly encourages fashion designers to go into business for themselves so much as align with a popular retailer. But still, the idea is there: Being an entrepreneur is rewarding, occasionally frustrating, and the stuff hit TV shows are made of.
Why We Like Watching Entrepreneurs on TV
So what's the formula for a hit? For viewers, it's often as simple as seeing a rich guy bet his own money on a struggling business. As Lemonis told me in an interview back in July, "In order for people to take you seriously, you have to money on the table. For the viewer to see you as credible, they have to know you'll stand side-by-side with the same risks of loss as you have risks of upside."
Watching people find strength in adversity is also heartening. The economy left no shortage of people battered, so we admire those who can pick themselves up and start yet again.
But there's something else. Josh Brooks, a Silicon Beach enterepreneur whose start-up, On the Run Tech, appeared on "Shark Tank" last month, told The New York Times shows like "Shark Tank" have created a platform that "revolutionized and brought life into the entrepreneurial spirit in a way that television hasn’t done before." Put simply, "It’s made entrepreneurship sexy."
No lie, there is something sexy about quitting your day job, pursuing your dream, and then having that dream skewered by Barbara Corcoran.
Amazon's Big Challenge
On the flip side, and what Amazon should pay attention to, is the fact that not every business show is a recipe for success. CNBC's "Crowd Rules," which pitted three small businesses against each other as they tried to convince studio audience members to award the $50,000 ended after three weeks. And Zuckerberg's infamous "Start-Ups" was panned left and right for showcasing the Silicon Valley nightlife more than the actual work that gets done.
"Betas," which bills itself as a comedy, might find itself at the center of a zeitgeist, which is really all Amazon could hope for. In an age where Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey receives profile treatment in The New Yorker and "The Social Network" has become a modern day fable for hard-won success, it wouldn't be a surprise to see "Betas" take its place in the cultural dialogue--so long as it has something fresh to say.