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Netflix and Amazon go head to head in streaming’s first blockbuster battle

Jessica Jones and Man in the High Castle launch on the very same day.

Jessica Jones (left) and The Man in the High Castle face off in streaming's first blockbuster battle.
Jessica Jones (left) and The Man in the High Castle face off in streaming's first blockbuster battle.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Friday, November 20, 2015, will mark a momentous event in TV history.

Oh, sure, it won't be as momentous as, say, the moon landing, but it's still pretty cool. For the first time ever, Netflix and Amazon are pitting two of their biggest properties head to head, after investing big production budgets and lots of promotional dollars into each of them. Netflix's entrant in this sweepstakes is Marvel's Jessica Jones, while Amazon's is the alternate history sci-fi series The Man in the High Castle (based on the beloved novel). But what's especially fascinating about this matchup is that the two series target roughly similar audiences.

It's just the latest example of filmmaking's blockbuster model slowly creeping its way into television.

This is different from a time slot battle

The Peanuts Movie can open opposite Spectre without either really being hurt.
20th Century Fox

Television has always had time slot battles — periods when two major shows from different networks aired at the same time, with one usually conceding its defeat and slinking away. (Sometimes if the two shows target very different audiences, they can both thrive, as when ABC's Home Improvement and NBC's Frasier faced off in the mid-'90s.)

Those have always been fun to follow, but in recent years, they've been less and less important, as DVRs make it easier to catch up on your favorite shows, across several channels, regardless of when they air. In February, for instance, Scandal and The Blacklist took each other on. Both stumbled in the ratings (Blacklist more so), but it wasn't like either was hurt so badly that it had to leave the fight.

Similarly, Netflix and Amazon putting two big-budget shows up against each other won't ultimately be a huge problem if one or the other doesn't attract a huge audience in its first weekend. The shows will still be available, and whether people stream them right now or in six months, it's all the same to both companies.

But it's still fascinating to see the two streaming companies compete like this. Hulu, the third major streaming platform, mostly stays out of this fight by releasing its originals traditionally, with new episodes appearing on a weekly basis.

And for the most part, the three companies stagger their release schedules, so that Amazon releases its quirky comedy Red Oaks in October, while Netflix releases its own quirky comedy Master of None in November. Launching The Man in the High Castle and Jessica Jones on the same day probably isn't conscious on either service's part, but it works out that way all the same.

Plus, it's not as if Amazon is sending The Man in the High Castle up against a much smaller (or different) Netflix show like the latter's enjoyable sketch comedy W/ Bob & David. Indeed, The Man in the High Castle and Jessica Jones are both huge, high-profile series. And even if there isn't 100 percent audience overlap between sci-fi novel fans and comics fans, there's still considerable similarity to the fan bases for both properties.

We're more used to this sort of competition in the world of film, where, say, The Peanuts Movie and James Bond film Spectre might fight over the same opening weekend. But even those target vastly different audiences. Generally, a broad animated family comedy can open opposite a more adult-skewing spy drama in the same weekend, and both can thrive.

Why Netflix has the upper hand

BoJack Horseman goes to visit an old friend.
Netflix's long list of really good shows includes BoJack Horseman. Amazon pretty much just has Transparent.


Something quickly becomes obvious in screening the opening episodes of these two series. Whereas The Man in the High Castle is the best drama Amazon has produced thus far, that's not really saying much. (Its peers include the utterly dreary Hand of God and the okay-but-plodding Bosch.) Indeed, The Man in the High Castle is probably the second-best Amazon show ever, behind only the brilliant Transparent. (The terrific comedy Catastrophe is a British production that Amazon merely had the good sense to import.)

But it's still slow and stiff in the early going and doesn't really step up its game until the fifth or sixth episode — a common flaw of streaming shows that erroneously believe they have tons of time to hook you. It's fine, and probably fine enough to keep you streaming over a long weekend, but it's not going to set your world on fire.

Jessica Jones, by contrast, is spiky and brilliant. It's probably the fifth- or sixth-best show on Netflix's roster — and that's only because Netflix makes so many good shows. What's odd about this is that both Amazon and Netflix use the same approach of turning creative people loose on dream projects without providing any interference whatsoever, but Netflix's success rate is steadily climbing higher. (To be fair, Netflix has its own "just good enough" clunkers, like Bloodline and Marco Polo, but nowhere near the number Amazon does.)

Some of this is probably because Netflix is attracting better people at this stage in its life cycle. It's been making original content longer, and it can point to more than one show as belonging in the top tier of TV programs. Having Orange Is the New Black and BoJack Horseman and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and two solid Marvel series and Master of None is very different from just having Transparent.

But it seems just as important that Netflix does one thing and one thing really well — streaming video. Amazon, by contrast, does a whole bunch of things to an adequate enough degree that you want to keep shopping with the company. That's good when it comes to getting products in the mail; it's less good for making great television.