Netflix has changed the TV industry with its slate of original content, and Amazon is hot on its heels

Netflix has changed the way people watch shows at home with its slate of original content and Amazon is hot on its heels

In just three years, Netflix has shaken up the television industry and changed the way people watch shows at home. The online content streaming service went from buying titles from the United States' established networks to producing its own acclaimed original series, feature films and documentaries.

In that same span of time, it has had to look over its shoulder. Other streaming services, Amazon, in particular, have upped their game in creating original content of their own - and getting acclaim for it.

Starting with the political drama House Of Cards in 2013, Netflix, which was launched in 1998 as a DVD-by-mail rental service, quickly became a major player as a producer of some of the most- talked-about original shows, including Orange Is The New Black, a dramedy set in a women's prison, and documentary series Making A Murderer.

With a subscription-based revenue model, Netflix produced shows that traditional TV networks might have passed on because they were too controversial and, hence, likely to alienate advertisers. Orange Is The New Black, for example, features lesbian relationships.

Unlike cable TV channels, Netflix was not bound by TV schedules nor beholden to ratings - new shows did not need huge viewership numbers immediately to justify their existence; they were allowed time to build a following.

Its appetite for risk paid off, attracting talent such as Judd Apatow to helm TV series Love and comic bigwig Tina Fey for sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

The awards followed: House Of Cards leads Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright have won Golden Globes for Best Actor and Best Actress (TV Drama), while Orange Is The New Black actress Uzo Aduba has an Emmy for Best Actress (TV Comedy).

Netflix's success has spurred other streaming services, including Hulu and even music-streaming service Spotify, to follow in its footsteps.

Its biggest competitor appears to be Amazon, which has been making enough headway on the awards front with its own slate of original programming to get critics and viewers alike to sit up and notice.

Netflix was not bound by TV schedules nor beholden to ratings - new shows did not need huge viewership numbers immediately to justify their existence.

At the Golden Globes last year, Amazon's original dramedy series Transparent - starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender woman - won Best TV Series (Musical Or Comedy) and Best Actor In A TV Series (Musical Or Comedy) for Tambor. He also took home an Emmy for the role in the same category last year.

Amazon emerged as the dark horse winner again at the Golden Globes this year, when its series Mozart In The Jungle won for Best TV Series (Musical Or Comedy). Its lead Gael Garcia Bernal won a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

When it comes to films, Amazon - which viewers here can access through a virtual private network, or VPN - has also been gaining ground, investing in arthouse movies that critics tend to lap up.

At the Cannes Film Festival this year, Amazon Studios became the unexpected new star when it led with five films, including the opening film Cafe Society by US director Woody Allen.

On the other hand, Netflix's slate of original films has been more of a hit-and-miss: While director Cary Fukunaga's Beasts Of No Nation (2015) is critically acclaimed, Netflix's Adam Sandler comedies, such as The Do-Over (2016), have proven a lot less well-reviewed.

In a Business Insider article in April, Amazon chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky was quoted as saying the company will "significantly increase our content spend this year". Analysts estimate about US$2.6 billion (S$3.5 billion) will be allocated to creating original content.

That is only about half of Netflix's US$5-billion budget for producing original content this year, which means it will still take a while for Amazon to catch up. This year alone, Netflix is rolling out more than 30 original series, double last year's output. Netflix's offerings are also more diverse than Amazon's.

Beyond scripted TV shows and films, Netflix has proven equally strong in investing in documentaries and children's programmes. For example, apreschool show to air next year is Julie's Greenroom, starring veteran actress Julie Andrews. It will feature guest stars, such as David Hyde Pierce and Carol Burnett, in each episode.

Also, since Netflix went live in 130 new territories - including Singapore - in January, it has been bent on creating more localised content for countries outside of the US.

Besides Netflix's made-in-Japan original series - such as coming-of- age drama Atelier (2015) - it announced it will begin production on its first Indian original series titled Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra's novel of the same name about corruption and crime in Mumbai.

It appears no market is too small for Netflix's original content production, not even Singapore. Mr Ted Sarandos, its chief of content, told The Straits Times in April: "If we're making a show only for Singapore, then it might be considered small. But if we're making something in Singapore for the world, it can be quite big."

Either way, TV fans welcome both streaming services. Mr David Lee, 59, who is self-employed and watches original series from both companies, says: "For TV fans, it's the more the merrier. If there's a bit of healthy competition between them, that will only force them to create better shows, which can only be a good thing for consumers."

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee


Netflix offerings

TV series

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK 

What: Based on Piper Kerman's memoir about her time in a women's prison, this series tells the stories of a woman (Taylor Schilling) who must use her wits to survive in jail. 

Watch it because: Despite the setting of a women's prison, the show is relatable and heartwarming. Critically acclaimed, it has picked up award nominations at almost every major TV awards, including 16 Emmy nominations in categories such as Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing. Actress Uzo Aduba also took home the Emmy last year for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as the emotionally unstable Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren. 

When: Seasons 1 to 4 are showing on Netflix.

UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT 

What: Created by comedienne Tina Fey and 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock, this comedy series is centred on the titular Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), a woman who is rescued from an underground bunker where she was held captive many years by a mad man and has to navigate a new and free life in New York City. Watch it because: It has Tina Fey's usual absurdist comedy style, gleaned from her Saturday Night Live days, and the endearingly ridiculous goofy antics of Kemper and Tituss Burgess. Some of Burgess' campy, hammy music sequences, such as the music video Pinot Noir, are the best things about the show. 

When: Seasons 1 and 2 are showing on Netflix.

CHEF'S TABLE

What: Created by David Gelb, who also directed the acclaimed film Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011), this documentary series profiles a top chef in each episode, such as Gaggan Anand, Massimo Bottura, Alex Atala and Enrique Olvera. Watch it because: Besides the moving stories of how these top chefs achieved their celebrated positions, the show is noted for its beautiful cinematic food porn shots. 

When: Seasons 1 and 2 are showing on Netflix.

BLOODLINE 

What: The Rayburns are a prominent family in Florida Keys. When estranged son Danny Rayburn (Ben Mendelsohn) suddenly returns to visit the family, dark secrets start surfacing. Watch it because: Some critics called this mystery thriller the best Netflix original series yet when it was first released in March last year, citing the pitch-perfect cast performances and consistent foreboding tone throughout. This is the perfect kind of show for binge- watching.

When: Seasons 1 and 2 are showing on Netflix.

DAREDEVIL 

What: This Marvel series is based on the character of Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer (Charlie Cox) whose alter ego is superhero Daredevil. Watch it because: A slow-burner, it has been noted for its brutal, extended, one-shot fight sequences, as well as strong characterisation. The villains, such as The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio), are especially fun to watch because of their complexities and unpredictable violent actions. 

When: Seasons 1 and 2 are showing on Netflix.

MAKING A MURDERER

What: This true-crime documentary series follows Steven Avery, a man who served 18 years in jail for the sexual assault and attempted murder of a woman named Penny Beerntsen. He was exonerated in 2003 after new DNA evidence surfaced.

Two years later, he was arrested for the murder of photographer Tessa Halbach, for which he was convicted in 2007. Avery's nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also convicted as an accomplice in the murder. Watch it because: Shot over 10 years, the series suggests that Avery and Dassey were wrongfully convicted due to unfair trial proceedings. That instantly generated a lot of controversy among viewers and a petition with more than 50,000 signatures was sent to the White House to demand for the men's release. Watch the show to make your own decision about what the truth might be. 

When: Showing on Netflix.

LADY DYNAMITE 

What: A comedy mockumentary based on the life of American stand-up comic Maria Bamford, including the time when she was broke and had to pick up the pieces. Watch it because: Bamford may not be well known here as a comedienne, but going by the trailers, she appears to be as manic and likably kooky as the lead in Netflix's other comedy, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

And in the hands of showrunner Mitchell Hurwitz, who also created acclaimed comedy series Arrested Development (2003 to present), this show has plenty of promise.

Also, look out for the many guest appearances to come in the 13-part series, including Sarah Silverman, Brandon Routh and Mira Sorvino. 

When: Now showing on Netflix.

STRANGER THINGS

What: A supernatural drama set in 1980s Indiana starring Winona Ryder that kicks off with a young boy vanishing, the uncovering of top-secret government experiments and the introduction of a strange little girl. Watch it because: It has been a while since Ryder took on a major lead role and it would be enough to catch this just to see what drew her to the project, where she plays the working-class mother of the missing boy.

When: Premieres next Friday on Netflix.

THE GET DOWN

What: Created by Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby, 2013) and Shawn Ryan, this musical drama set in 1970s New York follows a group of teens integral to the birth of hip-hop, punk and disco. Watch it because: With Luhrmann's name attached to the project, this will likely be a colourful and loud affair. It will be interesting to see how this compares with other hot music-themed TV dramas such as Empire (2015 to present) and Vinyl (2016).

When: Premieres Aug 12 on Netflix.

LUKE CAGE

What: Netflix's latest Marvel TV series after Jessica Jones and Daredevil, this follows ex-convict Luke Cage (Mike Colter), who develops super-strength after a botched experiment. Watch it because: Netflix has proven with its older Marvel TV adaptations Jessica Jones and Daredevil that it does not shy away from the dark undertones of the original comics, so expect Luke Cage to be just as intense.

The character of Cage had briefly appeared on the series Jessica Jones before as that titular role's love interest and that relationship may be explored here.

When: Premieres Sept 30 on Netflix.

THE CROWN

What: Unfolding over 60 episodes, this historical drama follows the life of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) from the early years of her reign to the present day. Watch it because: As Netflix's most ambitious and expensive drama to date - with a budget of more than US$156 million (S$210 million) - you can be sure this will be one epic and meticulously crafted piece of programming, with lush sets and gripping performances from Foy and co-stars John Lithgow and Matt Smith. Watch out for this title come awards season.

When: Premieres Nov 4 on Netflix.

Netflix films

BEASTS OF NO NATION

What: Directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, 2014), this war drama follows a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah), who fights as a child soldier in an unnamed West African country going through civil war. Watch it because: Critically acclaimed, many considered this one of the biggest Oscar snubs of the year when it failed to get any nominations. Still, Idris Elba, who plays the leader of Agu's battalion, took home a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor. 

When: Showing on Netflix.

THE DO-OVER

What: In this comedy flick, two long-time buddies (Adam Sandler and David Spade) decide to give their lives a do-over - by faking their deaths and assuming new identities. Watch it because: Well, only if you happen to enjoy Sandler's infantile antics. Otherwise, you may soon be asking for your own do-over to erase that memory. 

When: Showing on Netflix.

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING

What: Written and directed by Rob Burnett, who is best known for being the executive producer of Late Show With David Letterman, this drama is about an 18-year-old boy (Welsh actor Craig Roberts) with muscular dystrophy who goes on a road trip with his caregiver (Paul Rudd) and gains a new perspective on life. Watch it because: This film has been generally well reviewed, with critics praising the chemistry between Rudd as a goofy American and Roberts as an uptight Brit. 

When: Showing on Netflix.


Amazon offerings

TV series

TRANSPARENT

What: A drama about a Californian family whose lives change when the father, Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), comes out as a transgender woman. Watch it because: This critically acclaimed drama, which won the Golden Globe for Best TV Series (Musical Or Comedy) last year, is noted for its sophistication in its depiction of a family undergoing a major change, supported by strong cast performances. For his sensitive portrayal, Tambor won a string of Best Actor awards, including at the Emmys and Golden Globes last year. 

When: Seasons 1 and 2 are showing on Amazon Prime Video.

MOZART IN THE JUNGLE

What: In this dramedy, the young and talented Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal) takes over as conductor for the New York Symphony. His flamboyant ways cause friction with those who prefer the traditional methods of his predecessors. Watch it because: This low-key series was the biggest dark horse winner at the Golden Globes this year, nabbing Best TV Series (Comedy) and Best Actor in a TV Series (Musical Or Comedy) for Bernal. Critics have praised it for its wide appeal, despite its niche subject of classical music.

When: Seasons 1 and 2 are showing on Amazon Prime Video.

RED OAKS 

What: This comedy follows a young tennis player (Craig Roberts) who works at the fancy Red Oaks Country Club in the 1980s as a university summer job stint. Watch it because: The oldfashioned undertone of this series has been compared with those of US director John Hughes' 1980s comedies, which should sit well with viewers of a certain vintage. 

When: Season 1 is showing on Amazon Prime Video and Season 2 will air later this year.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

What: Inspired by Philip K. Dick's dystopian novel of the same name, this drama executive-produced by Ridley Scott presents an alternative history of the world in which the Axis powers, instead of the Allied forces, won World War II. Watch it because: The unique premise of this work sets itself up for plenty of suspense and intrigue, as it imagines life in the United States with powers such as Adolf Hitler and the Japanese emperor governing. In the first episode, for example, almost everyone in Western US can speak Japanese.

When: Showing on Amazon Prime Video.

THE GRAND TOUR 

What: Jeremy Clarkson, who was fired from motoring show Top Gear after his tiff with the show's producer, is returning with his former co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May in this motoring series where they will host each episode in a different country. Watch it because: Fans of the old Top Gear will want to see what Clarkson and his cronies get up to. 

When: Premieres on Amazon Prime Video later this year.

SNEAKY PETE 

What: After leaving jail, a con-man (Giovanni Ribisi) attempts to start a new life by assuming the identity of a former cellmate called Pete. Watch it because: Since Bryan Cranston made it big as the star and producer of TV series Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013), there has been much interest in anything he touches. This series, in which he guest-stars and executive produces, was shopped around before it was snapped up by Amazon. Its pilot has been hailed for being fast- paced and thrilling. 

When: The show is in development and will likely be released on Amazon Prime Video next year.

Amazon Studios films

THE HANDMAIDEN 

What: Directed by South Korean Park Chan Wook, this film adapted from Welsh novelist Sarah Waters' Fingersmith is about a pickpocket (Kim Tae Ri) who is hired to work as a maid for Lady Hideko (Kim Min Hee) to steal her fortune. Things get complicated when Lady Hideko falls in love with the maid. Watch it because: Park has been dabbling in English-language material such as Stoker (2013) and Snowpiercer (2013), so this marks a highly anticipated return to his native Korean cinema since his 2009 film Thirst. 

When: Opens in cinemas here tomorrow. Likely available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video later this year. 

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP 

What: Adapted from Jane Austen's epistolary novel Lady Susan, this Whit Stillman-directed film is about a widow named Susan (Kate Beckinsale) who hides in her in- laws' estate as rumours about her private life spread through town. Watch it because: Adaptations of Austen classics always draw fans. This one is particularly interesting because it is taken from one of her less famous works. 

When: Showing on Amazon Prime Video.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

What: Directed by Kenneth Lonergan and produced by Matt Damon, this drama follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is made legal guardian to his nephew (Lucas Hedges) when his elder brother suddenly dies. Watch it because: This was seen as a break-out hit at Sundance Film Festival this year where it premiered, with critics praising the richly textured drama and its sensitive take on loss and grief. Affleck has been named a potential frontrunner for a Best Actor Oscar next year. 

When: Set for a limited release in US theatres in November and expected to roll out on Amazon Prime Video three months later.

ELVIS & NIXON

What: An account of the historical Dec 21, 1970 incident in which the king of rock 'n' roll Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) showed up at the White House to request a meeting with US president Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). The meeting resulted in a photo that is the most requested at the National Archives in the US. Watch it because: The story is as bizarre as it is true. 

When: Likely to be released later this year.

CAFE SOCIETY 

What: Written and directed by Woody Allen, this romantic comedy set in the 1930s features a young New Yorker (Jesse Eisenberg) who goes to Hollywood hoping to make big bucks in the movie business. Watch it because: The premise and neurotic tone of the film - which opened Cannes Film Festival this year - are Allen's usual style, but this is the first time the 80-year-old director shot a film using digital cameras instead of film celluloid. 

When: Opens in US cinemas next Friday and will be streamed on Amazon Prime some time soon.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'TV viewers win as Netflix, Amazon face off'. Print Edition | Subscribe