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Netflix and Amazon Present Differing Visions for Streaming’s Future at TCA (Column)

After taking two years off presenting at the TCA press tour, both Amazon and Netflix returned over the weekend. And both staked memorably forceful claims on their respective roles within the streaming universe.

For Amazon, that meant shifting the conversation away from both the niche programming and the boys-club mentality of the now-concluded Roy Price era, with new Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke taking the stage for her first time representing the streamer. For Netflix, as is so often the case, it was a volume game, with a full day of programming showing off all the sides of Netflix’s diffuse identity.

Head of original programming Cindy Holland made the case Sunday that Netflix doesn’t actually have an identity at all, referring instead to the demographic-agnostic “taste communities” to which Netflix caters, which is reflected in the breadth of its programming from dark drama “Ozark” to upcoming Matt Groening cartoon “Disenchantment” (both receiving the spotlight with panels). “We don’t program to demographics or narrow programming mandate or to a particular brand identity,” Holland said before taking questions.

Her presentation emphasized Netflix’s strength at finding something for everyone and its continued strategic interest in pushing out a great deal of content. “Quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive,” Holland said, later seeming to allude to the fact that a high quantity of shows will inevitably yield at least a few that are less successful with the critical community. “Our primary goal is to please audiences,” she told the critics, “and every once in a while, some of you like what we’re doing, too, and we’re grateful for that.”

Because interest in Netflix among critics is beyond compare — no platform is more discussed among TV’s chattering class than the streamer, which guards its viewership information and the rationale behind its programming decisions closely — Holland faced, and quickly deflected, many specific and detailed lines of inquiry, about everything from whether Kenya Barris was headed to Netflix (“I don’t have anything to share with you today”) to whether “Gilmore Girls” would return (“We haven’t discussed it at all”) to whether “GLOW” would get a third season (“I don’t have anything to share with you just yet”).

Though Netflix broke plenty of news (including that they’ve ordered a limited series, historical drama “Madam C.J. Walker,” starring Octavia Spencer, and set a date for the upcoming “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”), the sheer volume of programming on their platform meant that Holland’s job was, in large part, managing critical enthusiasm for all Netflix has done and could potentially do in the future, and reminding critics that Netflix’s decisions are driven less by personal taste than any other shop’s. As one questioner noted that the much-Emmy-nominated and critically beloved “GLOW” seemed like an easy show to renew, Holland joked, “Maybe I should come have you do my job for me.”

The upshot: Netflix, which is not exclusively aiming for prestige status and outright rejects the boutique nature of most premium-cable outlets, makes decisions differently than do competitors. Indeed, driven by weighing viewership against cost (which Holland cited as the biggest concern underpinning any programming decision), they look a bit like the old broadcast-network model.

Salke faced different challenges than Holland. Rather than reiterating a well-trod statement of purpose, Salke had to reinvent Amazon both in terms of its specific programming — faced with a somewhat bare cupboard when she arrived, Amazon only put on two show-specific panels — and the general contours of its identity. And her executive session was as successful as it could have been, putting forward a bright and sunny face that looks, at least while the programming remains unseen, as exciting as Amazon’s TV side has been since its splashy first days. Salke made the smart decision to be joined onstage by two executives, both incidentally men of color; having demonstrated the inclusivity at the top, she framed Amazon as a place at which creative collaborators could feel respected, safe, and heard. “These guys are taking tons of creative meetings and bringing in talent,” she said, “and talent really responds to a place that doesn’t feel like it’s just kind of going down…one lane or one point of view.”

The contrast to Price’s Amazon, a place that reporting has depicted as rife with harassment, was pronounced; so too was the contrast to Price’s programming, with minor-key series like “I Love Dick” and “Crisis in Six Scenes” a thing of the past, in favor of splashy Julia Roberts-Sam Esmail podcast adaptation “Homecoming,” Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” follow-up “The Romanoffs,” and upcoming “Lord of the Rings” and Russo Brothers tentpoles. While shows like “Homecoming” and “The Romanoffs” predate Salke’s hiring, they look a lot like the network she looks to build — one that doesn’t just generate hits for select taste communities but attempts, with the help of top collaborators, straight-up zeitgeist smashes.

It’s hard to see how Amazon gets there from here, with Netflix seemingly so far ahead in the streaming wars. But it made the case for itself as a place unusually hospitable to the potentially massive visions of high-profile creators — just as Netflix made its case as the platform that services fans of all stripes.

Ultimately, both services used their time at TCA to point a way forward. For Salke’s Amazon, that means a reimagining and ground-up reconception that’s unafraid to call itself such. For Holland’s Netflix, it means continuity with a method that’s gotten them this far. That they may face increasingly pitched competition for attention in the years ahead only makes the most-speculated-about place on TV even more interesting.

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