Of Orcs and Gridirons: Amazon’s Prime Video’s Streaming Style

Curator's Note

In an April article from The Hollywood Reporter, Kim Masters revealed the turmoil and uncertainty that Amazon had been experiencing when trying to establish a subscriber base for their Amazon Prime Video platform. As Karen Petruska has argued, Amazon’s approach to streaming is distinct from other online competitors—it is largely a loss leader designed to encourage Amazon Prime subscribers to renew their annual memberships. Still, the executives at Amazon Prime Video were interested in creating the most attractive lure for their subscribers. Initially, the plan was to create an Amazon tentpole in the mold of HBO’s Game of Thrones. This strategy led to the much-publicized unprecedented budget for the Lord of the Rings television series. While the series was a moderate success, it did not garner the kind of buzz that executives had hoped. More importantly, it was not overwhelmingly popular with subscribers.

The limits of scripted programming to maintain streaming subscribers become all the more clear when compared to the subscriber draw that Amazon observed after securing the rights to the NFL’s Thursday Night Football programming. Amazon’s deal with the NFL is the highest profile example of sports programming migrating to streaming platforms. During the early decades of the cord-cutting era, cable executives had pointed to sports as the safety net that would ensure that the cable bundle would survive despite the rise of digital disruptors. This assumption was based on a sports viewing subject position popularized by ESPN, remote controls, and the proliferation of cable channels in the 80s and 90s. Travis Vogan describes the creation of this sports audience when quoting the founders of ESPN, who touted their network as a home for “sports junkies” that wanted to spend all day watching sports, programming for “people who like to watch a college football game, then a wrestling match, a gymnastics meet, and a soccer game, followed by an hour-long talk show—on sports.” The clip attached of Homer Simpson settling in for a day of “TV Sports” is an illustrative example of this sports-viewing archetype.

As sports programming is increasingly poached from cable by streaming platforms, we are seeing a shift in what it means to be a sports viewer. The streaming sports viewer is offered sports programming as part of a menu of “desired states of being,” as Amanda Lotz describes streaming platforms’ value proposition. Whether it is a refined British sports offering like the Premiere League on Peacock or a kind of “fan evangelism” (Martin) opportunity provided by Paramount+’s NWSL games or Apple TV+ MLS coverage, quality sports viewing experiences are increasingly atomized to the particular logics of streaming platforms and removed from the cornucopia of sports offerings once delivered on cable or broadcast.

Mareike Jenner would likely identify this shift as part of a trend in which new technologies are often associated with new viewing practices that promise to enhance the viewer’s ability to maximize or “improve” their viewing behaviors. But Rowe, Tiffen, and Hutchins warn that the partitioning of sports programming behind paywalls may have anti-democratic consequences, and Branden Buehler argues that this could lead to increasingly personalized experiences that dampen the community-building opportunities that sports have long offered.

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