An inside look at how Amazon makes TV shows

CNBC's John Harwood preparing for his cameo on the set of Amazon's new series "Alpha House." He is standing next to actress Evie Colbert, wife of Stephen Colbert.
Jonathan Alter

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y.—Wednesday started like many of my workdays do, in a television studio for a 6 a.m. appearance on CNBC's "Squawk Box." Then came my half-day escape from reality.

I came here to appear on an unfamiliar kind of TV show: "Alpha House," an entertainment program produced by Amazon Studios, a unit of the e-commerce giant. My friend Jonathan Alter, a longtime political reporting colleague who helps produce the show, recruited me as he has many others in the NBC family.

I had fun, for sure. I also learned a lotabout Amazon, the entertainment business, and the reality show that American politics and media have become.

I felt at ease soon after arriving at the sprawling estate here, where Amazon was taping "Alpha House," a show produced in New York about Washington politicians. "You look so Washington," said a member of the production team, assuming I was an actor like dozens of others checking in for wardrobe assistance. "Are those your clothes?"

Wedding party members run out of the house on the set of the new Amazon series "Alpha House."
John Harwood

Inside a barn, a squad of hair and makeup specialists, including some who previously worked on shows like "Boardwalk Empire" and Broadway's "Phantom of the Opera," prepared bit players to portray caterers, bartenders and guests at a wedding. They decided the powder I had applied for my "Squawk Box" appearance was adequate for my tiny role.

A van took me across the imposing estate to the main house that provided the backdrop to my scene. Not long ago, the property was used for shooting part of Woody Allen's 2013 film "Blue Jasmine."

Dozens of videographers, production assistants and crew members swarmed the driveway. The months-long shooting schedule for a show like "Alpha House" supports a large number of good-paying union jobs. One of the grips on set told me he got started by working on Allen's twice-yearly movie projects in the 1970s.

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The economics of the project reflect big shifts in the entertainment industry. The show is produced on a full-scale TV production budget, but not with the traditional financing model that relies on advertising revenue based on the show's ratings. It streams on the Internet through Amazon Prime, which uses its entertainment content to help retain Prime customers, who pay $99 per year for free shipping, among other benefits.

Garry Trudeau, creator of the iconic political comic strip "Doonesbury," sat in a director's chair pecking away at a laptop. The show, based on a real-life house on Capitol Hill where Sen. Chuck Schumer roomed with other politicians, is his brainchild. It uses cameo appearances by politicians like the New York Democrat and by broadcasters like Trudeau's wife, Jane Pauley, to lend versimilitude to its comedic plots.

Director Adam Bernstein, whose credits range from "Breaking Bad" to the "Love Shack" music video for the B-52s, darted around amiably in jeans, sneakers and a hat. He walked me through the pacing of my role, the duration of which was approximately 30 seconds. The actress Amy Sedaris, one of the stars, chatted up fellow cast members nearby.

I was playing myself, as a reporter seeking to interview a U.S. senator at a high-profile wedding. But another reporter with a different news agenda (fashion) blocked my path. She was played by the actress Evie Colbert, who in real life is married to late-night TV host Stephen Colbert.

We walked through the scene several times with the B-team (stand-ins for the main actors) so that Adam could set lighting and camera angles to his satisfaction. Then he and the A-team was ready.

"Alpha House" director Adam Bernstein on location looking over a scene on video monitors.
John Harwood

It took multiple takes before we got past a series of small flubs. Once the door to the senator's limo didn't open. i blurted out my single one-word line—"Senator!"—before one of the stars had finished her line. Adam wanted Evie to approach the senator (and block my way) from a different starting point.

Then we started over so that Adam could tape the scene from a wholly different camera angle. We'd gotten it down by then, so it only took a couple of takes. Then we were dismissed so that Adam could get on to the seven more hours of shooting ahead of him that day.

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As we left, Jonathan cautioned me that Adam might select a camera angle showing only the back of my head. That's just fine; the value in the experience was seeing a small part of how this large entertainment machine functions.

Soon enough I was back in Manhattan, on the southbound train to Washington, returned to my natural habitat: Standing on the White House north lawn to cover President Obama's speech to the nation on the new U.S. anti-terrorism offensive. I was facing the camera.

—By CNBC's John Harwood.