Amazon's Smart Programming Strategy: Zombies, John Goodman and Crowdsourcing

The company is letting viewers decide which shows it will produce.

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Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos are creating several online original series.

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Amazon has announced that it is greenlighting a pilot for a new "Zombieland" series, based on the eponymous 2009 movie. That puts the show in the company of a high-profile lineup: In December the company announced that it had six other comedy pilots in production, including "Onion News Empire," a fictional show about producing a fake newscast, and "Alpha House," a political comedy by "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau and starring John Goodman.

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The key word behind this strategy is "pilot": In the relatively uncharted landscape of online original series, the company is relying heavily on its customers to provide direction. Amazon will put these pilots up on its website, then look to user feedback to determine which full series to produce.

This idea overcomes two hurdles: the company not only has to bring people to its site to watch shows, but to the Internet to watch shows, period.

Amazon hopes to do this by offering shows that, at least from their descriptions, look like the opposite of flat, "Two-and-a-Half-Men"-esque fare. One pilot will be a musical comedy about journalism. Another will be, in the company's words, an "animated workplace series about two slackers just trying to make a paycheck working an intergalactic warship."

While beloved but quirky shows have been known to die on network television (think "Pushing Daisies," "Firefly," or "Arrested Development"), the Internet has thus far been an ecosystem where smart shows that may be too odd or racy for the mainstream TV audiences can live (see "House of Cards," "Lilyhammer," and, once again, "Arrested Development").

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By asking its customers to choose among pilots, Amazon gets to put up its own oddball fare with less risk, having received democratic input from its viewers before putting time and energy into series that ultimately would get few viewers. In addition, it gets buy-in from viewers before the shows are even created. When users provide feedback on the shows—especially the types of shows they won't likely see anywhere else—it may translate to greater loyalty.

"Essentially, it's listening to your customers and what they want. And over the long haul that will certainly help bring people to expand the number of amazon instant video users," says R.J. Hottovy, an analyst at Morningstar, a Chicago-based investment firm.

In this sense, Netflix gambled on "House of Cards." The company committed itself to 26 episodes of the series, hoping for good reception. Had critics and consumers rejected the show, that would have been a two-season sunk cost.

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Another way Amazon is drawing interest is via crowdsourcing. The company is essentially holding an open, online cattle call allowing people to send in their own series ideas and scripts. Even if Amazon has found a great strategy, the online programming competition is growing stiffer by the day. Netflix and Hulu continue to release new shows backed by Hollywood star power. On-demand music service Spotify is also reportedly planning its own video streaming service. It all means that Amazon may need fantastic programming and a smart business plan just to stay afloat.

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