Third season of shows signals Amazon's next huge push

Amazon sweetens Prime
Amazon sweetens Prime

Amazon's latest wave of original pilot shows launches Thursday, as the company intensifies its push into original streaming content, challenging rivals like Netflix and HBO.

The three half-hour comedies and two hour-long dramas in this pilot season are packed with big names. Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh is producing "Red Oaks," a comedy about a suburban New Jersey tennis club in 1985. Mark Forster, known for directing "Monster's Ball" and "World War Z," is making his TV debut with drama "Hand of God."

Also making his TV debut is acclaimed writer/director Whit Stillman, with a show called "The Cosmopolitans," a romantic comedy starring Chloe Sevigny and Adam Brody, set in Paris. "Hysteria" is a thriller created and written by Shaun Cassidy, the former pop TV star. And "Really" is a comedy about suburban Chicago couples from comedy producer Jay Chandrasekhar and executive producer Jamie Tarses.

In a twist, the company is offering them free for anyone to watch, soliciting viewer feedback to figure out which to turn into full series. Those series are then available exclusively for members of its $99 annual Prime subscription service.

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Amazon also just greenlit five more kids' TV pilots for production—including three animated shows and two live-action shows—which will be available in early 2015. This summer Amazon debuted three kids series, of which it'll release new episodes over the course of the fall. (Amazon's staking its claim in the kids content space with licensed content as well—last year it made a big deal for Nickelodeon kids content.)

Director Steven Soderbergh
Getty Images

In July Amazon announced it'll spend $100 million on original video content in the quarter, a significant increase over the prior quarter and the year-earlier quarter. The company hasn't released any data on the success of its originals, though it will say that twice as many people watched its second season pilots as did its first season.

Rival Netflix is also investing more in original content, and this year plans to double spending on that category, which still comprises less than 10 percent of its total global content outlay. That adds up to Netflix spending less than $320 million on originals this year, or an average of $80 million a quarter.

Which means Amazon will spend $20 million more on original content than Netflix this quarter. Naturally, this raises the question for some people: When will Amazon have a hit on the scale of Netflix's hits lie "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards."

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The comparison isn't entirely apt, as Amazon's video strategy is distinctly different. The company's Prime Streaming Video, along with a new streaming music offering, are perks that come with free unlimited shipping on most products. Amazon wants to sweeten the appeal of its Prime service, because those subscribers spend about 70 percent more than nonsubscribers, according to an RBC story.

In January, Amazon confirmed it has over 20 million prime subscribers, but hasn't given any update since then. Time will tell if big names like Soderberg can generate enough buzz that people feel like they've got to pay for Prime to watch his and the other shows.

—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin