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Can Stalled-Out Amazon Studios Get Back On Track Under Salke? Will It Matter?

NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke just got a very big new job. Now to see if turning around the stalled ship that is Amazon Studios can be done in a timely fashion. Just as importantly, given everything else Amazon is getting into, can Salke’s new team deliver the goods at a level that Jeff Bezos and others will even notice?

Jennifer Salke streaming videoThe studios, launched to create and acquire streaming-video content that would give people more reason to subscribe to Amazon’s Prime service, had a good run for several years. It grabbed critical notice and awards for original series such as Jill Soloway’s “Transparent,” “Man in the High Castle,” “Mozart in the Jungle” and more.

This time last year, Amazon pickups “Manchester by the Sea” and “The Salesman” won a total of three Oscars, firsts for a streaming service (though, to be fair, Netflix also picked up an Oscar at the same ceremony, for documentary short “The White Helmets”).

But in the year since, it’s been rough sledding. The company’s shows were largely shut out of last summer’s Emmy nominees, despite a pricey For Your Consideration campaign for 10 series, while upstart Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” become the first series from an online streamer to win a Best Drama Emmy.

Then disaster struck. Studio chief Roy Price, who helped found the studio operation, stepped down amid sexual harassment claims involving the producer of “Man in the High Castle” (she is also Philip K. Dick’s daughter).  Shortly after, Price’s right-hand person, episodics exec Joe Lewis, also was pushed out because of nepotism charges involving his girlfriend, who was given a role on Amazon series “The Tick.”

And the same #MeToo tsunami that washed away Price also hit one of Amazon’s highest-profile stars, Emmy and Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Tambor of ‘Transparent,” leading to his recent departure ahead of Season 5.  Soloway, meanwhile, was reportedly so distracted by her underperforming new Amazon show, ” I Love Dick,” that she neglected Season 4 of “Transparent.”

Amid all that, yet another executive, ABC veteran Morgan Wandell, departed for a plum job at Apple’s growing online-video team, followed soon after by three more-junior execs.

Even without the executive changes, a transition was already coming. Last summer, Bezos arrived in the studios’  Los Angeles offices to proclaim he didn’t want any more small shows. Instead, he wanted the next “Game of Thrones,” the hugely expensive and successful HBO fantasy series.

Soon after, the company committed $250 million for rights to programming set in the universe of “Lord of the Rings,” and then made another big bet on the “Conan the Barbarian” franchise.

Meanwhile,  “I Love Dick,” Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi,” and “Jean Claude Van Johnson” are among the casualties being culled from the studios’ lineup.

Salke is well liked, well connected, with deeper experience in scripted entertainment than her chief competition for the job, Nancy Dubuc of A+E. Given the circumstances around the Price and Lewis departures, it was almost certain that a woman would take over the organization (especially given the dearth of female senior execs elsewhere in Amazon). Indeed, every candidate on Variety’s contender list for the job was female.

But how soon can Salke right the ship at Amazon, and, presuming she does, will Amazon even notice, given everything else it’s doing these days?

First of all, it’s not clear how soon Salke will join Amazon. She committed to staying at NBC Entertainment for an unspecified transition period.

And then, once Salke arrives, she’ll need to rebuild the executive team, and begin to put a stamp on what shows she wants. The “Lord of the Rings” programs almost certainly will take years to develop and get on screen, one insider told me. True fans of the franchise will lap that stuff up whenever it arrives, but execution will be everything if it’s to reach a “Game of Thrones”-sized audience.

Meanwhile, consider the other ventures Amazon has been linked to just in this past month. With a market capitalization comfortably north of $600 million (and, with Bezos, an ambitious and restless CEO already estimated to be the world’s richest man), Amazon is busy disrupting lots of other industries, including:

  • Live programming. Twitch, its gamer-centric online channel that is a separate unit from the Studios, now has about as many daily average viewers (960,000 concurrent viewers) as CNN, Fox, ESPN or MSNBC.
  • Shipping. Amazon already spends $20 billion a year on shipping, and owns 32 planes and 6,000 trucks. It’s also committed $1.4 billion to build its own air-freight hub. Now it’s considering going DIY for all of its shipping.
  • Health Insurance. It partnered with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan to create a healthcare operation for the three partners’ hundreds of thousands of employees.
  • Medical supply. The company is exploring opportunities to distribute healthcare products to hospitals and clinics.
  • Chip design. The company bought Blink for $90 million, less for its security cameras than the long-battery-life chips in them, perfect for its next generation of Echo digital assistants.

Yes, Amazon Studios could still be something big under Salke, a talented executive with a whole lot of friends in Hollywood. But as Amazon gets bigger in so many directions, will Amazon Studios ever be as big or important to the company’s reputation as it was the past four or five years? Probably not.