Reluctant Retailing: Amazon Prime Video and the Non-Merchandising of Kids' Television
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Examining Amazon Studios’ investment in children’s programming, this article investigates how relationships between television development and consumer product merchandising are navigated as streaming video and retail become intertwined. Amazon’s 2010-2018 open submission development model first reveals the role merchandising played in the search for new programming. The forces limiting integration of children’s programming and retailing, however, demonstrate secondly how media merchandising depends on partnerships between companies more than control of multiple market sectors. Finally, Amazon’s construction of a prosocial brand identity as a reluctant retailer that serves children’s needs through digital tech instead of plastic toys evinces a transformation of media retail. Viewed across its production model, position within the larger cultural economy, and branded self-presentation, Amazon’s reluctant retailing is less a refusal to engage in the merchandising practices that have historically shaped children’s media cultures, and more the adaptive application of those retail principles to new digital platforms.
For most children’s television producers, licensed consumer products merchandising is not an afterthought or product of audience demand but an integral component and survival strategy for series development. As Andrew Carley, head of licensing for Peppa Pig (2004-) distributor Entertainment One, told The Guardian in 2010, declines in advertising have diminished old sources of production financing. “When we’re looking at new shows, it can be difficult to work out how to finance them if there’s not the licensing component,” he explains, “because there’s so little money from the broadcasters.” As far back as 1997, executives like DIC Entertainment’s Robby London similarly saw consumer products retail as an increasingly central component of the financing picture. Licensed merchandising “used to be gravy,” he explained. “Now it’s almost the main course.” Producers in this sector, therefore, build merchandising strategies into series pitches and strike deals with toy manufacturers and other consumer product companies to secure alternative forms of financing. At trade events like the Kidscreen Summit, aspiring creators can attend “Mentor Meetings” to “help you get started on planning your consumer products strategy.”
However, if consumer product strategies are the main course for kids’ television development, it sometimes seems that Amazon Studios wants to go hungry. As the production arm charged with developing original content for the Amazon Prime Video streaming subscription service, Amazon Studios invests heavily in children’s programming to attract young families and build lifetime brand loyalties. These efforts have produced numerous animated programs with appealing characters, including Creative Galaxy (2013-), Tumble Leaf (2014-), and Wishenpoof! (2015-), that could compete in the lucrative preschool merchandising market inhabited by Sesame Street (1969-), Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (2012-), Peppa Pig, and more. And yet very little consumer products exist for Amazon Studios series—despite Amazon’s status as a major retailer. Amazon represents the potential integration of television production and retail merchandising, and yet it has not developed a robust consumer products strategy for children’s television.
Exploring that seeming contradiction, this article investigates how and why relationships between television production and merchandising are navigated as streaming video and retail become intertwined. Although media scholars frequently examine relationships between television programs and the merchandise surrounding them, those works tend to debate the potential of so-called “program length commercials” to absorb children within consumer culture or counter by giving attention to the meaningfulness of merchandise as a form of paratextual productivity. By contrast, the aim here centers on the ways television industries manage their relationships to retail sectors. While media retail is a significantly underexplored phenomenon, recent research points to its value as a site for theorizing the contexts in which popular culture is displayed, browsed, and purchased, as well as explaining how and why transactions and interactions between buyers and sellers matter to the production of meaning, value, and identity in mediated experience. Asking how Amazon positions (or repositions) children’s programming in relation to the retail merchandising that has long influenced production, circulation, and reception of the genre, this article reveals how relationships between television providers and merchandise retailers shift within new platforms, technologies, and business models.
To that end, this article traces Amazon’s orientation to children’s television merchandising as an online retailer. First, examination of Amazon Studios’ 2010-2018 open submission development model reveals the roles that merchandising did—and did not—play in the company’s search for new programming. Attention to the provisions made for merchandising—and the attempts of would-be content creators to manage those possibilities—demonstrates how potential for retail profit was imagined into Amazon’s development aspirations. Against these possibilities, however, this article secondly highlights the practical, ideological, and industrial forces that limited Amazon’s use of children’s programming as a support for retailing consumer products. Despite Amazon’s potential for media-retail integration, media merchandising depended as much on partnerships between companies as integrated control of multiple market sectors. Finally, discussion turns to the strategies Amazon pursued in lieu of traditional approaches to merchandising and children’s television. Rather than abandoning media retail, Amazon transforms it; analysis of its attempts to generate a prosocial brand while introducing child consumers to digital tech (instead of plastic toys) reveals changes in children’s television merchandising. When viewed across its production model, its position within the larger cultural economy, and its self-presentation to consumers as a trusted brand, Amazon’s reluctant retailing can be understood less as a refusal to engage in the merchandising practices that have historically shaped children’s media cultures, and more the adaptive application of those retail principles to new digital platforms.
Merchandising in Open Submission Development
Amazon Studios launched in 2010 to generate original content for the retailer’s existing online streaming video on-demand (SVOD) service. Rebranded as Amazon Instant Video the next year, this service offered unlimited, exclusive streaming access to thousands of film and television titles to members of its Amazon Prime program. For $79 annually at that time, Prime members enjoyed the benefit of free shipping on retail purchases alongside instant online access to entertainment content. Everyday retail transactions and media consumption were thus imagined as mutually supportive in the value proposition of Prime. To compete with other SVOD providers, however, Amazon pursued exclusive content partnerships with premium cable channels like Epix as a means of making this Prime package more alluring. However, while Prime Video sought to acquire existing content it could redistribute, the Amazon Studios production subsidiary also developed original entertainment content over which the SVOD service could claim even greater exclusivity. These efforts matured in April 2013 as five original series joined the Prime library for the first time: the live-action comedies Betas (2013-2014) and Alpha House (2013-2014), as well as three children’s programs: Annedroids (2014-2017), Creative Galaxy, and Tumble Leaf.
The prominence of children’s programming in early Amazon Studios output pointed to future trends. As of 2018, Amazon Studios had generated fourteen separate children’s television series, compared to twelve dramas, thirteen comedies, and eighteen documentaries. While budgets for these children’s series undoubtedly pale compared to those for dramatic productions like The Man in the High Castle (2015-), the relative quantity of kids’ content indicates its significance within the Amazon library. The international television trade organization MIPCOM found that Amazon ordered some thirty hours of children’s programming between 2013 and 2015 alone. This early investment mirrored strategies in play across the SVOD market at large: Netflix ordered over twice as much children’s content during this same period. In 2014 SNL Kagan found that kids’ programming (both original and acquired) had come to account for 17% of all content available on Netflix and a quarter on Amazon Prime. As Joshua Brustein summarized in specialist trade publication Kidscreen: “Investing in kids’ content is becoming the new normal for streaming giants.” That norm extended in part from perception of children as major influencers over household SVOD subscriptions in a competitive environment where service could be cancelled and restarted at any time. As Variety concluded, “Kids’ content is one of the biggest drivers of consumers picking up subscription-video-on-demand services,” while an SNL Kagan analyst captured the parental perspective by quipping, “If my two-and-a-half-year-old was deprived of Curious George, my life would be a living hell.” Industry analysts like Rich Greenfield thus nominated kids’ programming as the “glue” holding the SVOD economy together.
Amazon Studios sought to differentiate itself from other entertainment content developers, however, via an open submission model allowing anyone to submit proposals for films, television series, and comics to be peer reviewed by fellow Amazon users. Although the Amazon Studios Development Agreement that governed this model would be tweaked over time, the 2014 version provides a snapshot, at least, of the economic and creative relationships imagined into being. For television production, the Agreement promised $55,000 for any single concept that Amazon chose to option, with an additional $1,500 to $5,000 per episode produced, and a $100,000 payout for any series later adapted into a standalone motion picture event. Beyond this, Amazon promised content creators up to 5% of any merchandising rights—crucially signaling Amazon’s interest in having majority control over any consumer products sold at retail. In addition to peer feedback, Amazon Studios also facilitated consumer feedback via the “Pilot Season” process in which series ordered to pilot stage contended for popular support (referred to in the Agreement as a “Premise War”). Couching its development process in the familiar, network television terms of pilot episodes evaluated prior to series orders, yet promising that the collective intelligence of users would replace the “gut” instincts of executive gatekeepers, Amazon encouraged its users to “Watch the Shows, Call the Shots.” Amazon could then take that feedback into account when ordering pilots to series production.
The open submission program abruptly concluded in April 2018, however. By that time, this contentious system had attracted criticism for evading guild signatory agreements structuring Hollywood labor, as well as concerns from participants about a toxic reviewing community, and Amazon’s sometimes predatory claims of ownership over intellectual property submitted but never greenlit. By 2017, Amazon’s reliance on closed development models and executive decision-making practices led it to question the value of continuing to run public Pilot Seasons. Variety called the end of this “technocratic” development model a signal that Amazon had fully committed to producing its content the “traditional, Hollywood way.” For all intents and purposes, Amazon had never put its full faith in the open submission model. Ultimately, the open submission system only resulted in a single television concept ordered to series: the children’s series Gortimer Gibbons’ Life on Normal Street (2015-2016).
Despite this limited lifespan and yield, Amazon had encouraged aspiring kids’ television producers to participate in the open submission program. Until 2015, in fact, Amazon explicitly excluded dramatic series development from open submission, preferring to use the system to court creators in comedy and children’s programming alone. Such open solicitation of creative pitches was not unheard of in the children’s entertainment industries at that time. In 2014, for example, executive Kay Wilson Stallings reminded Kidscreen Summit attendees that her preschool cable channel Nick Jr. welcomed review and development of submissions from unrepresented talent. However, in contrast to this promise of open submission opportunity for new talent, both Amazon and Nickelodeon alike proved far more likely to invest in established creators than unknown quantities. While first time creator David Anaxagoras did find distribution for Gortimer Gibbon’s via Amazon Prime, the service has more frequently greenlit kids’ series from creators with established track records—like Angela Santomero, who created Blue’s Clues (1996-2006) for Nickelodeon as well as Super Why! (2007-2016) and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for PBS before signing a deal with Amazon for Creative Galaxy. In these typical, Hollywood-style deals, established creators could negotiate for their own (not publicly disclosed) terms separate from the boilerplate agreement to which open-submission participants consented.
With open submission models already in operation in kids’ cable television development, and Amazon pursuing Hollywood models of television development in parallel, merchandising potential did figure in Amazon’s early experiments with developing original kids’ programming. Recall that the Development Agreement offered a one-size-fits-all $55,000 payout for an optioned series: after selling a concept to Amazon, producers had very little ability to share in any long-term profits, receiving only one-time payouts for each additional episode ordered. It was in merchandising, and 5% profit sharing in it, that open submission producers might most realistically have hoped to see profits scale with success. Thus, many public submissions for Amazon preschool programming frequently highlighted their potential to support “play” in service of merchandising aims. Among the thirty projects ranked as “most popular” by Amazon, the “mini-bibles” posted for Tumble Leaf as well as the unproduced The Travel Cat Journals, The PIXs, and The Build-o-saurs all to varying degrees highlight this potential. The inclusion of Tumble Leaf in this database is notable, moreover, because it is not credited by Amazon as a product of the open submission system like Gortimer Gibbon’s; its presence thus serves more as a model or prototype for other creators to emulate.
Sometimes merchandising support was implicit in these mini-bibles. The Tumble Leaf proposal, for example, speaks of the series “educational objectives,” linking them to an ethic of “play [that] naturally unfolds into observing, then into experimenting, then into meaningful understanding. There is value in play!” This value gets personified in series protagonist, Fig. “By simply playing,” the proposal explains, “Fig is learning the value of joy, doing, trial and error, sharing, self-confidence, and kindness.” This emphasis on Fig’s capacity for play—and the actions of doing, trial and error, sharing, and more—operate as what Jennifer Bennett, Fisher Price Senior Director of Strategic Development for Global Licensing and Entertainment Partnerships, calls built-in play mechanics. Companies like hers produce licensed goods based on children’s television series when the narrative itself offers models for playing with those consumer products. Many other series proposals centered their narratives on playthings and everyday consumer merchandise even if they did not overtly promise a merchandising plan. The protagonist in The Travel Cat Journals proposal, for example, “is a quirky toy/stuffed animal cat” that explores the world to learn local games, cuisines, and dances. Identified as the “main themes” of the series, “play,” “food,” and “music” could each in principle support merchandise sold at retail, from officially licensed plushies to branded cereals to soundtrack albums.
Yet if the pitches for Tumble Leaf and Travel Cat leave this potential to the imagination of development executives reading their proposals, the proposals for The PIXs and The Build-o-saurs make merchandising plans explicit. Although the Travel Cat proposal promises preschoolers some additional content via a series blog, the PIXs proposal goes into greater detail about products that could be spun from the series’ educational goals. Although the characters evoke “giant construction toys,” the emphasis of this proposal out of France’s Centre Nationale du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée rests more heavily on integration of television streaming with new kinds of books and digital technologies. “The PIXS project is transmedia by nature,” the creators explain, “it deals with the encounter between the real world and the virtual worlds around us.” The materiality of consumer products merchandise affords this integration with the on-screen world; in addition to mobile phone apps, the creators envision what they call an “increased reality book” that works in concert with other consumer technologies like cameras, computers, and tablets. They propose marketing a product called a PIXcam that can monitor child users’ reading interactions, along with books whose pages’ “unique visual signatures” enable them to act as computer peripherals. Such books, they argue, would teach children about “the richness of the exchanges between the digital and the analog,” merging the entertainment content available on Amazon Video with the material tech commodities the Prime service could deliver. Meanwhile, The Build-o-saurs proposal offered a less innovative but more unapologetic embrace of preschool television merchandising. After surveying a roster of characters including a stegosaurus bulldozer and an excavator tyrannosaurus, the proposal baldly promises that kids will “look forward to the day that Build-o-saurs toys will be added to their toy collection.”
Across such proposals, Amazon’s open submission model offered continued support for the merchandising and brand partnerships characterizing established kids’ television programming sectors. Rather than presenting an alternative means of financing, Amazon’s contracts presented merchandising rights as a central means of profit sharing. With merchandising figured in this way, open submission contributions often emphasized the potential for streaming television and retail to meet—even if that promise was not actualized through a series order.
Yet if participation in Amazon’s open submission community was incited in part through the merchandising logics typical of kids’ television production, efforts by Amazon itself to leverage these possibilities have not significantly materialized at the retail level, either. In fact, Amazon’s capitalization on the merchandising potential of its original series seems as underdeveloped as the single television series that resulted from nine years of open submission review.
Amazon offers very little licensed consumer product based on kids’ television series exclusive to Prime Video. As of 2015, there were no toys (or other physical consumer goods) for either of Amazon’s oldest children’s programs, Tumble Leaf and Creative Galaxy. These series would logically have had the most established merchandising strategies in place by that time, nearly two years after their debut. As Fisher Price executive Jennifer Bennett explains, consumer products companies at that time often waited to commit to brand partnerships until a full season of television production had been completed and established a market. Yet the lack of consumer products for these first two properties after two years suggests that Amazon’s initial goals for kids’ television development did not include merchandising. Only by 2016 did Amazon publicly acknowledge the potential for merchandising those initial children’s television series and begin experimenting with limited brand partnerships. Building on the arts and crafts theme of Creative Galaxy, Amazon conducted what the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA) called a “test” of its consumer products capacity, with Kahootz Toys releasing in Fall 2016 the “Arty’s Tool Belt” art supply activity kit. At the same time, Amazon contracted with clothing manufacturer Freeze to produce Wishenpoof! and Tumble Leaf t-shirts. Following those tests, Amazon revealed to LIMA its intent to pursue merchandising more “aggressively”; yet contradictorily, Amazon qualified that this would be a “measured” and “phased approach” “to ensure that products are taking hold before expanding distribution.” Since making these initial promises, Amazon continued to participate in LIMA events like its annual Licensing Expo, but it offered no more explicit fanfare about its subsequent consumer products plans.
By 2018, product searches at Amazon.com still revealed very little in the way of licensed products beyond these initial test offerings; moreover, the retailers’ algorithms made the product that did exist difficult to find. An attempt to search for “Tumble Leaf” specifically in the “Toy & Games” category in Fall 2018, for example, automatically redirected shoppers to the “Movies & TV” category with links to Amazon Prime streaming video. Users had to scroll down beyond these first results to see other “departments” and find the one Tumble Leaf plush toy available. Even when users explicitly searched for it, Amazon’s algorithms thus preferred to direct customers to streaming television product rather than material merchandise based upon it. By comparison, searches for “Sesame Street” or “Daniel Tiger” within “Toys & Games” did not produce results that overrode category selection (despite the presence of Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger content in the “Movies & TV” content included with Prime subscription), and the Amazon shopper could see any number of licensed products based on those non-exclusive children’s series. Although the Sesame Street merchandising machine objectively overshadows Amazon’s early experiments in the licensing realm, the retailer’s shopping interface appeared to be algorithmically reluctant to clearly point consumers to its own similar television tie-in products. As a result, Amazon’s kids’ content appears less commercialized even by contrast to programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger that carry the educational imprimatur of their public broadcasting origins.
This tentativeness about retail merchandising based on Amazon’s proprietary television content appears counterintuitive. As of 2016, Amazon enjoyed an estimated 34% of all retail market share in the US, inclusive of both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar sales. Various reports cast Amazon and Walmart in a battle to become the largest retailer in the world, with the outcome varying based on measurement methodology (assets, revenues, profits, and/or market value). In terms of children’s toys, specifically, Amazon made $4.5 billion in sales in 2017, with the top selling category of infant and preschool toys totaling $650 million; this constituted a 16.7% share of the total US toy market (online and off) and somewhere between 83% and 89% of all online sales for toys made by the three largest manufacturers: LEGO, Mattel, and Hasbro. Altogether, Amazon had become a major force in the retail industry in general and children’s consumer products specifically, and yet it lagged in leveraging intersections between its retail and subscription television businesses. LIMA reports suggested that it was only after prodding by parents searching for licensed consumer products, in fact, that Amazon resolved to participate in merchandising industry events. The potential for television streaming services to invest in merchandising brand partnerships should also have been visible to Amazon based on the greater efforts of competitors in that space. In parallel to its deepening investment in original children’s content, Netflix pursued in 2014 partnerships with Saban Entertainment and Spin Master toys, for example, to produce The Popples (2015-), an animated series based on the revival of a line of plush animal toys from the 1980s. A day after announcing that partnership, Netflix announced another TV-toy tie-in through acquisition of the streaming rights to the Winx Club (2004-) franchise. In the subscription streaming economy, alliances between children’s television and consumer products could be just as prominent as in the network and cable eras.
Moreover, Amazon held potential to generate revenue from television merchandising at multiple stages: television content subscriptions, licensing fees from consumer products manufacturers, and the retail transactions of online shoppers. Indeed, if it was to sign exclusive agreements with manufacturers, Amazon could have aggressively integrated these television and consumer products markets, becoming not just the only place to find Creative Galaxy, Tumble Leaf, and Wishenpoof! programming, but also the merchandise based upon it. As LIMA reports, Amazon’s 2016 licensing “vigor” looked to its own online retail platform as the “primary target” for any such expansion, despite overtures to brick-and-mortar stores as potential retailing partners.
Nevertheless, Amazon’s “measured,” “phased” approach makes more sense in light of the potential hazards such integrations pose. The barriers of exclusivity surrounding Prime Video content, if extended around consumer products, limit the potential interest of manufacturers in licensing these television brands. On the one hand, merchandise exclusive to Amazon.com could often have more limited market reach than non-exclusive merchandise. As Jennifer Bennett suggests, consumer product manufacturers would weigh carefully the manufacturing, shipping, and marketing cost for product that is not available at all major outlets and visible to the largest number of possible consumers. While retailer exclusives are not uncommon, scale matters: exclusive deals between manufacturers and retailers are predicated on the reach of the latter’s outlets and their ability to capture the demographically-imagined consumers for the former’s product. In other words, the prospects for marketing toys and other merchandise based on Amazon character brands are limited if they exclude Walmart and other potential retail partners where parents are perceived to shop for their children. On the other hand, even if Amazon were to forego exclusivity and seek retail partners, it might find retailers like Walmart disinclined to provide a platform on their shelves for a retail competitor’s television brands. Especially in the case of Amazon Prime Video—which, like Netflix, remains secretive with its audience measurement data—potential retail partners like Walmart may also be reluctant due to lack of knowledge about the scope and scale of the market. Without data comparable to broadcast and cable Nielsen ratings, decisions about inventory ordering and shelf stocking for tie-in merchandise become harder to make.
As a result, Amazon’s television merchandising footprint has remained small in scale but not so exclusive as to be fully under its control. The Creative Galaxy Arty’s Tool Belt, for example, is “sold and ships from Amazon.com,” but the distribution arrangement with manufacturer Kahootz does not reflect confidence in Amazon’s ability to market the product alone. Instead, the product is also available on Walmart.com, “sold and shipped by Walmart” itself, not just one of the third-party sellers using the site as a platform for their own inventory. Still, the item hardly seems to be a priority for Walmart; although available for online purchase and in-store pick-up at a later date, it does not appear to be on immediate display in stores. Furthermore, the sloppy online presentation of the item leaves out of apostrophe in “Arty’s” and lists it as a “Toolbox” rather than “Tool Belt,” hardly respectful to the brand. While Walmart will clearly take a piece of any retail market that Creative Galaxy might support, it is also easy to imagine the product’s online availability as driven by the retailer’s larger relationship with Kahootz moreso than desire to support the Creative Galaxy brand. Walmart stocks dozens of other products made by Kahootz, and the manufacturer may find itself able to push the retailer to accept Creative Galaxy product as part of this investment in the wider catalogue. Amazon’s presence at Walmart might thus owe as much to the strength of the Kahootz brand.
Considering such manufacturer brands, it is also worth noting that Amazon has sought production partnerships with smaller, boutique manufacturers rather than toy licensing giants like Hasbro, LEGO, and Mattel. For example, Amazon contracted with Gund to release in 2018 a limited number of plush toys based on Wishenpoof and Tumble Leaf characters. In these cases, the product pages for such items described them as “Amazon Exclusive,” suggesting that a match had been found for those products between the scale of the market and retailer reach. Yet that scope was one that did not, apparently, warrant press releases or reporting in venues like Kidscreen or LIMA to promote the new partnership; 2018 reporting on Gund’s “expansion of its licensing business” did not even mention a relationship with Amazon. Gund’s position on the periphery of the licensed merchandising business makes it a well matched partner for Amazon’s still-early experiments retailing its own character brands on an exclusive basis.
In the end, Amazon’s understated, reserved media merchandising strategy does not reflect failure to understand its own strength as a retailer, so much as its recognition that brand partnerships between television and consumer products benefit from wide interest across the retail economy beyond its own proprietary platform. While Amazon can support its kids’ programs with merchandising plans, and potentially support its retail business in the process, the economics of consumer products are not always well matched to the scale of Amazon’s exclusive Prime Video television brands. This is not to say, however, that Amazon ignores the potential for building relationships across its television and retail businesses; instead, as the reluctant retailer, the company has positioned itself as a prosocial parental ally armed with the power of digital technologies. In this context, moreover, its relationships with select manufacturers like Kahootz and Gund may even be understood less as reflection of Amazon’s inability to command larger merchandising markets for its kids programming, and more as a signifier of its prosocial, educational, and tech-savvy discernment.
Prosocial (Non-) Retailing
Amazon Studios’ limited merchandising strategies directly support the prosocial corporate brand it has constructed around its children’s programming. Laurie Ouellette identifies prosocial television branding as part of “an ambivalent response to the decline of the public sector as the guardian of welfare, fairness, and equality—as well as a mechanism to differentiate channels in a cluttered marketplace and generate ‘ethical value’ for brands.” Within kids’ television, Amazon has repeatedly claimed allegiance to the values of educational service and the perspectives of parents and experts concerned with child welfare; in doing so, Amazon both lays claim to a public service ethic that had otherwise been the remit of broadcast institutions like PBS and distinguishes its streaming service from SVOD competitors whose more developed consumer products partnerships appear commercially oriented by comparison.
Amazon pitches its kids’ programming as an extension of its service to parents as much as to kids. Through programs like Amazon Family (previously called Amazon Mom), which offers free shipping and discounts on diapers, baby food, toys, and other kid essentials, the company has explicitly courted the consumer loyalty of parents. Thus, when Tara Sorensen, Amazon’s chief of kids’ programming, explains that “We started with preschool programming, knowing that kids and families were a huge part of Amazon’s customer base,” she links the company’s subscription video service to this broader corporate initiative of serving parents as retail consumers. Amazon has therefore framed its children’s television offerings in terms of educational values commensurate with middle class parental discourses rather than the entertainment values children themselves may seek.
As such, the strategists behind Amazon Studios’ development slate have been framed more as educator-advocates in tune with public investment in kids’ creative needs than as product marketers. In 2014, educational advisor Dr. Alice Wilder explained Amazon’s mission as helping to create “the kids who are going to be the creators and the empathizers” of the future. The next year, Amazon Studios revealed its Thought Leader Board, a panel that included Wilder plus three other consultants charged with guiding “the development of preschool programming that engenders lifelong learning.” In publicizing these board members, Amazon highlighted how the combination of their four areas of expertise would enable children to become “tinkerers,” to learn “through play,” to embrace “creativity,” and to engage in “life-skill learning.” These skillsets were not happenstance, part of a concerted effort to build a board that connected with parental desires for their children; Amazon market researchers had previously solicited feedback from users about potential board members, their qualifications, and their commitment to these values. As Sorenson promised, this board would predict trends, direct understanding of childhood needs, and foster “extended learning outside the series we create.”
This prosocial corporate positioning in relation to the educational needs of children was nothing new. From public service broadcasters to toy manufacturers, the service of children’s “creative” needs is a commonplace construction of institutional mandates and brand identities. However, Amazon’s role as a reluctant retailer reinforces that positioning, branding the prosocial children’s television service through disavowal of licensing partnerships and merchandising strategies whose commercialism calls public service missions into question. Contrast this reluctance to that of The LEGO Group, for example: while it has long described its mission as serving the creative needs of children through play, licensed partnerships with media brands like Star Wars (1977-) and Harry Potter (1997-) invited criticism for “compromising” that prosocial brand of playful creativity with violent, commercial, and predetermined themes.
By claiming to resist merchandising, Amazon sidesteps such concerns, gaining less contested access to the educational values it claims. Against rhetoric positioning media merchandise as a hyper-commercial “bad” object, Amazon legitimates the educational value of its children’s programming by refusing its retail potential. Although Amazon Studios’ Tara Sorensen does not foreclose upon the possibility of more significant merchandising in the future, she disavows such considerations in the here and now. “As the kids fall in love with these characters, they’ll want to play with them in different ways,” she states, “but right now it’s about the programming.” Furthermore, Sorensen presents Amazon’s distance from merchandising as “really liberating. I tell people all the time, if you watch Tumble Leaf, there is not an obvious consumer products plan there. It is really about a wonderful character and a beautiful world where he’s going to take us on a fantastic journey.” Through this lack of merchandising intent, Sorensen reinforces Amazon’s interest in building appeals to parents: “As an Amazon customer and a mom myself,” she promises, “as well as a development executive for the last 20 years, I wanted to make sure we were approaching programming in a different way.” To build a prosocial brand, Amazon positions itself in educational opposition to the commercial excesses of merchandising, establishing itself as “different” from and more discerning than its competitors while strengthening its allegiance to the values and sensibilities of parent consumers.
Yet while Amazon’s reluctance to go beyond merchandising “tests” can be explained in part by its discursive disavowal of consumer products licensing, its retail operations do leverage other kinds of media and merchandising relationships. Serving Amazon’s status not just as a media company, but also a tech company, Prime Video children’s programming supports digital technologies sold at retail (rather than only the explicitly branded character toys, books, and apparel of traditional consumer products and television partnerships). Although any Amazon Prime Video user requires a connected digital device, perceptions of contemporary children as digital natives drive new relationships between the marketing of programming and technology. In 2016, market analysts saw contemporary children as the “first generation to grow up in a truly multiplatform universe” spanning iPads, mobile phones, computers, and more, invoking a new “Generation #hashtag” that preferred “content designed and distributed exclusively though digital channels.” In that context, kids’ programming streaming on Amazon Prime could operate less as incitement to purchase non-digital branded goods, and more as part of a chain of consumption from digital content to digital devices and technologies on offer at retail.
In September 2014, for example, Amazon debuted its Fire HD Kids’ Edition, a durable tablet device designed with the child user in mind. As described by industry analysts, however, the device’s appeal lay beyond its hearty hardware in the availability of Amazon Prime content for it. With Amazon “Having spent the past few years creating a library of kids programming,” Fire HD Kids’ Edition came with a one-year subscription included, as well as access to FreeTime Unlimited, an app enabling parents to choose and limit children’s on-screen viewing. Amazon Studios programming supported the Amazon Prime subscription service which supported use of the Amazon Fire device, bringing digital content, distribution, and use into alignment. However, the FreeTime Unlimited add-on service was promoted less as a means of managing Amazon-exclusive kids’ content and more as a way of controlling content loaded onto the Fire HD from sources other than Amazon. In 2018, both Business Insider and the Fire HD Kids product page described FreeTime as a means of accessing kids’ content made by PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, with mentions of Amazon’s proprietary subscription content conspicuously absent. Promotional pictures included for both featured characters including Spongebob, Batman, Daniel Tiger, Cookie Monster, and Thomas the Tank Engine rather than any of Amazon’s proprietary characters. Although access to this larger library of third-party content was undoubtedly a major selling point, the television subscription service was invoked as a parenting problem to be managed by the FreeTime service and the Fire HD technology sold by Amazon.
Amazon Studios content itself encouraged retail sales of digital devices in other indirect ways. While not ultimately ordered to series, the pilot for Buddy: Tech Detective (2015) positioned tablet use as a central component of the learning and creative play emphasized by Amazon’s prosocial corporate rhetoric. Described as a series in which kids “help choose and use the technologies for Buddy and his team to gather evidence, follow clues, and crack the case,” the pilot episode followed these characters as they used a tablet device to find the source of unidentified green splatters on the sidewalks throughout their community. The crux of this solving-problems-through-technology play pattern figured the tablet as a glorified magnifying glass for zooming in on the splatters (spoiler alert: they were paint). However mundane, the pilot constructed creative problem-solving skills in terms of high-tech consumer devices—which Amazon would happily sell to parents who wanted their children to develop those capacities. This impulse to position children’s programming as a marketing support for tech retail emerged in the aforementioned proposal for The PIXs, where the animated series would have promoted sale of a host of devices for engaging children’s play and creativity in ostensibly new ways.
Meanwhile, digital apps attached to Amazon Studios content created the possibility of immaterial retail sales. When asked about the merchandising potential of Creative Galaxy, creator Angela Santomero positioned digital apps as an alternative to traditional consumer products. “We are very responsive to parents and will provide them what they are asking for,” she explained, “but right now we would like to provide the app to take the Creative Galaxy show to the next level of interactivity.” Particularly insofar as kids’ consumer products might be framed as part of efforts to please parent consumers, Santomero did not completely rule out traditional merchandise; but she framed her exploration of digital apps as something distinct in their ability to deliver educational values such as “interactivity.”
So, while Amazon adopted the prosocial identify of the reluctant retailer unwilling to tie television development to consumer product merchandising like its competitors (both initially and even after its supposedly “aggressive” tests), it has not entirely sidestepped the construction of mutually supportive relationships between television and retail. To the extent that digital technology sold by Amazon is positioned as a valuable tool in educating children and building their creative and problem-solving capacities, such merchandising is more compatibly folded into Amazon’s identity as ally to the consumer parent than previous brand partnerships focused on mass-produced toys. Amazon’s kids’ programming can support retail merchandise sales, but in different forms than the broadcast and cable brand partnerships that came before.
Whether its kids’ programming supports the sale of Fire HD tablets or branded apps for Creative Galaxy, Amazon has juxtaposed these digital efforts to the merchandising of children’s programming in broadcast and cable markets. Its claims about prosocial service to children’s creativity help make that distinction legible, even as Amazon’s programming development model continues to figure merchandising as a potential profit center. By framing apps and digital devices as creative problem-solving tools in support of educational needs, and not as products sold through the vertically integrated organization of Amazon Studios, Prime, and .com, Amazon makes a play to disconnect itself from media merchandising even as it continually relies upon its promises and logics. In this sense, while Amazon is a reluctant retailer that limits the scope and even disavows participation in the nexus of television programming and consumer products marketing, it has simultaneously identified new ways of envisioning the television-retail relationship. While vital for all streaming platforms, children’s television occupies a place of strategic centrality for Amazon in particular because it mediates longstanding relationships between television and retail merchandising while also imagining new digital futures for them. As Amazon manages its 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods and increasingly envisions a brick-and-mortar retail presence for itself in book and media sales, too, these relationships will continue to transform and reshape the contexts for children’s television merchandising. Writing of Amazon, Emily West writes “it is increasingly retailers who are in the position to identify new product opportunities to suppliers, based on their treasure trove of consumer data, and to make or break products though their own marketing choices.”
By examining the persistence of merchandising frameworks within experimental development models, the challenges of adapting exclusive subscription content to consumer products campaigns in retail environments, and the reluctant disavowal of merchandising in a prosocial bid for parental trust, this article has revealed Amazon Studios and the Amazon.com retail operation as a complex and contradictory site of interaction between media and merchandising. At that intersection, Amazon constructs but also negotiates the value of merchandising—not just its economic value, but also those cultural significances assigned to it as industrial practice. This case study of Amazon reveals merchandising to be more than just a revenue source as an arena in which the shifting relationships between television programming and retail environments accrue meaning and value. In that sense, the implications go well beyond Amazon itself, asking us to reconsider the relationships between media and retail as they are changed by digital delivery and digital commerce alike.
Derek Johnson is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries, the editor of From Networks to Netflix: A Guide to Changing Channels, as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Entertainment Industries.
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