Amazon Banks on Valley Appeal to Boost Originals

New show Betas won't carry ads, but will feature product placement

With its first original comedy, Alpha House, Amazon Studios went with skewering Washington D.C., a deserving but familiar milieu.

But with comedy No. 2, Betas, which debuts on Friday, Amazon is looking to take viewers inside the less mined but equally obsessed-over Silicon Valley. The timing would seem to be perfect, as it’s become common cocktail party conversation for the average American to dissect Twitter’s stock price or opine on the Snapchat founders' decision to turn down $3 billion.

"There have been shows about Silicon Valley, but nobody's figured out how to make that look interesting on its own,” said director and producer Michael Lehmann. “But young people are so into this world. If you have a kid now, you want them to build an app. So we thought, 'Why hasn’t anyone done this show?'”

Betas is about Trey and Nash, two young engineers working on a "game changing" social app called BRB. The comedy will chronicle their quest to get BRB funded, launched and built into a real business, while bringing viewers inside the startup world.

“This is not a show about tech in itself,” said co-creator Evan Endicott. “But this stuff (like smartphones and social apps) has infiltrated everyday life. Whether you consider yourself a tech person, you are.”

Don’t expect The Social Network. Co-creator Josh Stoddard struggled to come up with comparisons in the TV world. “It’s got an aspirational quality, like The IT Crowd," he said. "It’s very much based on friendships, so it’s got elements of Girls, Entourage.” In the Web video world, Betas would seem to share some traits of the show Leap Year.

Endicott and Stoddard said that creatively, despite its data-driven, bottom-line-oriented culture, Amazon pretty much stayed out of the way. That freed the writers to avoid writing 22-minute episodes with commercial breaks, for example, and even negated the need to make every episode look the same.

“That was liberating,” said Endicott. For the creators and actors. “The only recurring note we got was ‘just don't’ make it like regular TV,” said actor Joe Dinicol, who plays Trey. Even though Betas is a “Web show,’ "there’s no drop-off in quality.”

“We can take risks,” added Stoddard. "Amazon is still trying to figure out what its identity is in this sphere.”

Indeed, for Amazon, the show doesn’t necessarily need to be a monster hit; few seem to be expecting a House of Cards-type moment. The company’s philosophy about programming is that it can help it sell more TVs.

But Amazon Instant is still several notches below Netflix and even Hulu Plus in terms of consumer awareness. It could clearly use a boost. It would seem that a show about startups would be a good way to engage the young and tech savvy.

“The nice thing about our show is that it’s very much in the wheelhouse of Amazon Prime customers,” said director/producer Alan Freedland. “It’s the right subject matter. Amazon will have to figure out [its voice]. I don’t know that they're trying to out-Netflix Netflix."

Amazon’s shows don’t carry traditional TV ads. But, according to Endicott, Betas does feature some product placement, though he was coy on which brands and products will make appearances. “We did some,” he said. "It all felt 'of the world.' Nothing was ever dictated, but it’s nice, this is a company that sells things. It seems like they can naturally sell products to our viewers and we don’t have to push it.”