Amazon's new content chief explains how she's battling Netflix

Key Points
  • Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios, is taking on Netflix as well as all the major TV networks.
  • Salke joined earlier this year after leaving NBC Entertainment.
  • "I think what we are doing is creating breakout programming across all genres," she said.
Amazon's new content chief outlines studio's strategy
Amazon's new content chief outlines studio's strategy

When Jennifer Salke left her role as president of NBC Entertainment earlier this year to run Amazon Studios, her job shifted from a focus on ratings to the pursuit of content that would lure subscribers to Amazon Prime.

At the same time, Salke had to contend with brewing cultural tensions. She took over for Roy Price, who was ousted four months earlier after sexual harassment allegations.

She's dealing with all that while going head-to-head with Netflix, which has built a mammoth original content business and is spending $8 billion on programming this year.

In an interview with CNBC from Vanity Fair's New Establishment Summit, Salke highlighted one big similarity between her old job and her current position: the chase for hit content.

"I think what we are doing is creating breakout programming across all genres," Salke said. We're "not trying to overwhelm with quantity. It's all about quality and creating impact," she said.

Salke wouldn't say how much Amazon is spending. As her business grows, she has a long list of competitors, including all the traditional TV networks and the multitude of streaming services.

"We're looking at a very curated approach where we can really gather around and amplify individual shows," Salke said.

Following the critical acclaim for Amazon's "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which took home five Emmy awards, Salke wants to keep trying to appeal to a broader audience.

'A complete picture'

"It needs to be a complete picture," she said. "We will continue to keep a 'prestige' pathway for creators open and also embrace more broadly appealing content. Many creators are coming in and they might have the idea they are most passionate about and is specific to them, but then they also have a bigger ambitious idea."

Salke said that no amount of money will be enough to corner the market on hit content.

"We are all in a hit-driven business," she said. "There will be hits on Netflix, there are going to be hits coming out of the Disney platform," which is coming soon.

Salke said she's going after more breakthrough shows that have a big "cultural impact."

"What I hope to do is be able to raise the odds that more of those shows come out of Amazon studios and we can deliver them to the 200 territories across the world," she said.

Then there are all the benefits that Amazon, the global e-commerce giant, brings to the table. Salke said she's looking for synergies between Amazon Studios and Amazon Fashion.

Atmosphere from Amazon Fashion's launch of The Fix.
Source: Amazon Fashion

"We have at our fingertips the technology and ability to let people who are fans of a show be able to get the item of clothing the next day," she said. "I, for one, will sign up for that as a great benefit."

Amazon Studios, under Salke, has already signed a handful of creator deals that are focused on the potential to drive retail sales.

"To have Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn come in, and to have the next version of their fashion competition show and then be able to wear those things the next day," will be a game changer for consumers, Salke said. She's also working with Blake Lively, who starred in "Gossip Girl," on a show that could leverage her appeal as a fashion icon.

"People were desperate to wear those things," Salke said. "So she already made those connections and so she's looking for an opportunity to really amplify that and she has a great idea about how to do that."

While Salke's background is in TV, she's also expanding Amazon's position in movies. Last year, Amazon Studios released Woody Allen's "Wonder Wheel," but more genres are on the horizon.

"We want to expand and widen the aperture to tell all kinds of stories," she said. "Whether it be romantic comedy or sci-fi or big genre pieces, or other types of movies we can pursue. You've seen some restructuring that we're doing right now, which is to build out different pathways to do that. But we didn't close the door on quality or prestigeworthy fare in TV or movies."