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How to make a hit TV show — for Amazon

Veteran screenwriter Graham Yost has made big movies like “Speed” and TV shows like “Justified.” Now he has a streaming success with “Sneaky Pete.”

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Actor Giovanni Ribisi in the Amazon show “Sneaky Pete” is shown holding a camera with a telephoto lens outside a crime scene taped off with caution tape that reads “Police line do not cross.”
Giovanni Ribisi in “Sneaky Pete”
Amazon / “Sneaky Pete”

“Sneaky Pete” was originally supposed to be on CBS — but, as with a lot of TV shows, the network passed after seeing the pilot.

Unlike most failed pilots, the show then found a new home — on Amazon Prime Video. “Sneaky Pete” has become Amazon’s most popular show in North America and its second-most-popular show worldwide. Its second season drops this Friday, March 9.

Making a hit show for Amazon is a lot like making a hit TV show, showrunner Graham Yost said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. But there are some important, subtle differences.

“We pitched the first episode of the first season ... and we’ve got it broken by acts, and [former programming executive] Morgan Wandell says, ‘Yeah, we don’t have acts at Amazon,’” he recalled. “There’s no commercials, so you’re not breaking it up every eight minutes or 10 minutes.”

“But I said to him, ‘We still have acts creatively,’” Yost added. “Because we need to know the pace of the episode, where are we hitting, what, where, when. That’s just how I know to tell a long story. But it started to change over time, because you don’t have to go to commercial break. You realize that thing that, normally, I would put in the last 10 minutes, we could put that in 20 minutes to the end.”

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On the new podcast, Yost also talked about his pre-Amazon career, writing movies like “Speed,” starring Keanu Reeves, and TV shows like the FX crime drama “Justified.” One of the other differences between a show like “Justified” and “Sneaky Pete” is that even though they both tend to have cliffhangers at the end of an episode, the reason for those holy-shit moments is different.

“When it says the up-next episode will start in however many seconds, if people just let that roll, then the show is working,” Yost said. “There’s an urgency to it, rather than, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll check in on that next week.’ It’s like, ‘I’m gonna watch it now.’”

He added that he has learned the best way to avoid bingeing, if you don’t want to stay up all night: Stop an episode in the middle.

“So get about 20 minutes in, and then go to bed,” Yost said.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcastor wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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