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Amazon’s Fire TV: Burning Down The House

on Wednesday, Apr. 2nd

Slowly but surely Jeff Bezos is taking over the media.

Today marked the announcement of the anticipated set-top box from Amazon, dubbed the Fire TV. As expected this new device will compete with the Roku and Apple TV devices, settling in at $99.

For video services Fire TV will support not only Amazon Instant Video but Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Vimeo, the NBA and MLB.tv, all of which are pretty much platform agnostic at this point. Until today Amazon Instant Video was effectively platform agnostic as well, appearing on the Roku as well as Playstation and Xbox consoles. One has to wonder how long those deals will hold up, now that Amazon is making competing hardware. Especially hardware that plays video games.

For an additional $39.99 a game controller can be added to the mix, which opens turns the device into a game console featuring Android based games. Amazon promises thousands of games by next month.

That, of course, translates into port upon port of mobile phone games to the big screen. They promise an average price of just $1.85 for games. These numbers are almost certainly based on the current mobile marketplace. For gamers concerned with quality, there probably couldn’t be worse news.

(Read why the race to the bottom in games and media sucks for consumers after the jump.)

We’ve seen what the race to the bottom has done to the games market for the past decade. It leads to things like the Threes/2048 débâcle where a rip-off of a highly designed game is cranked out over a weekend and eclipses the original. The developers of Threes get to scrape together an existence while their work is exploited by those with questionable ethics. Could the Threes developers headed the clones off at the pass by making their game free-to-play with ads? Just 99 cents on debut?

We’ll never know.

There’s a corollary over in the indie TV space, otherwise known as YouTube.

There we’ve seen the rise of multi-channel networks as creators banded together (Maker Studios) and advertising innovators gathered a roster of stars (Fullscreen). Both flavors of MCNs seek to solve the same problem: the majority of indies can’t go it alone.

At first the MCN model looked like it was going to be the middle ground between lone wolves and Big Media, but that hope is quickly being extinguished. Disney’s purchase of Maker Studios for half a billion (more if they hit performance targets) was the tombstone for the middle path. The ad revenue split for YouTubers is notoriously bad, which incentivizes lowest common denominator programming.

Amazon, in the meantime, has become the New Octopus. Not content with holding the high ground in the publishing industry, Bezos and company have slowly been colonizing Hollywood. Their beachhead was the Internet Movie Database, of all things. Yes, Amazon owns the mirror with which Hollywood looks at itself. There’s a segment of actors who are obsessed enough with their StarMeter rankings that they pay people to raise them, much in the same way people buy Twitter followers.

There’s practical uses of IMDB as well. A Pro account yields you all kinds of useful information like agency and production company phone numbers. It isn’t exactly Hollywood’s White Pages, but that’s not too far off the mark.

To IMDB the Amazon empire added Amazon Studios, which had a first-look deal with Warner Bros. for crowdsourced development. That venture didn’t yield any film hits, but Amazon uses the same brand for their Amazon Original series, like Alpha House and Betas. (Up next on the development slate: Delta Dogs, Kappa Kops, and Omega Moo.)

Once upon a time Congress stepped in to stop Hollywood from owning every piece of the production and distribution chain. That’s why the Fox and Paramount theaters in your home town are more likely to host concerts than they are to show X-Men: Days of Future Past or Noah. Soon Amazon will have a much better scenario than that: they will publish books directly to your Kindle, stream TV shows they produce to every device you own, and deliver games to your TV. Amazon Payments is a de facto bank for services like Kickstarter, and much of the web runs on Amazon Web Services.

Amazon is, in essence, too big to fail.

From a certain point of view the Fire TV is the first “new generation” multimedia device. While the recently released game consoles pack a lot of computational power, Amazon has run the other way and is doing what it does best: delivering content on the cheap. This gives them a huge first mover advantage as Google and Apple finalize their own new generation plans.

Microsoft long dreamed of using the Xbox as a trojan horse for owning the living room. While they were building that brand Bezos and company turned themselves into ubiquitous middle men between content creators and consumers. At every step of the way they have catered to the whims of the later, the former having a status little better than the temp workers who fulfill shipping orders in Amazon’s vast warehouses.

What’s distressing about the race to the bottom is that it favors the crappy status quo we already have in media. When new platforms  emerge there is this brief, shining moment when discovery is possible. A few gems appear, some reputations get forged, and the audience is open to experimentation. Those values don’t seem to be anywhere in Amazon’s DNA. It is not a creative force. Amazon is FedEx with an attitude: a shipping company that thinks it knows best.

It would be one thing if Amazon contented itself with being an infrastructure company, but their forays into media production and game development–not to mention Bezos’ personal purchase of The Washington Post–betray far vaster ambitions. What is strange about all this is that the old media guard seem to be content to let Amazon grow and grow. Perhaps they are waiting for a showdown between Amazon, Comcast, and Google with the giants slugging it out until their empires crumble under their own weight.

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