A most curious thing has happened with Amazon’s billion-dollar bet on its streaming-video future. The e-commerce giant blocked any fan reviews on its sites of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power until 72 hours after the show’s Prime Video debut, so Amazon can better review whether recliner sofa critics actually watched the show.
Amazon is doing what it can to hold back a tsunami of negative fan reviews for the new series upon which it has devoted, if not $1 billion, a more reliably reported and still stunningly prodigious $715 million to procure and produce.
It’s the sort of thing that only a company as big and wide-ranging as Amazon could even attempt, given its ownership of not only one of the biggest streaming sites, but also go-to outlets for movie and TV information such as IMDB.com and BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Consider it the streaming equivalent of “buying the first weekend,” a term for studio marketing blitzes back in 2019 when theatrical distribution still mattered. The tactic was designed to ensure audiences showed up that first golden weekend before negative reviews could impact subsequent box office.
And dealing with bad and fake reviews is something Amazon has a lot of experience with; it has banned hundreds of companies from selling on its vast marketplace for trying to manipulate reviews of their products. But program reviews made with bad intent, especially fake ones filed by waves of bots, are a different issue, and one that affects all of streaming video.
Step wrong with an ardent fan base, or heaven forbid, feature a cast more broadly representative of the viewing population than that narrow(-minded) fan base’s conception of what the cast should be, and there’s balrogs worth of hell to pay.
Managing fan tantrums or even opposition dirty tricks are increasingly material for all of the streaming services. Ratings and reviews matter more and more, especially given the nine-figure budgets of shows such as The Rings of Power, with their potential to attract new subscribers, retain existing ones, and reduce growing churn and viewer malaise.
Perhaps the difference here is that Amazon is actually trying to do something to roust out the Internet trolls hiding under their Wi-Fi bridge.
The tactic seems to have paid off for the moment: the company said a whopping 25 million people around the planet watched the show on its first day, dwarfing (so to speak) House of the Dragon, which HBO/HBO Max said set a company record with nearly 10 million viewers on its first day two weeks earlier.
Amazon had to take drastic measures because The Rings of Power features, for lack of a better term, elves and dwarves of color, as well as a diverse new race of hobbit-like creatures called harfoots, among other transgressions on the delicate pieties of a certain set of problematic fans/humans.
On Rotten Tomatoes, which is owned by Comcast, the series has received an 84% “fresh” rating from 230 critics, a quite respectable number that’s within a couple of percentage points of RT’s other “most popular TV” shows, including House of the Dragon, Disney Plus' She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, and Hulu’s The Patient.
But look on the Insane Fan side of RT’s ratings, and it’s a considerably more rotten picture. Of nearly 19,000 fan reviews, just 39% give Rings a positive review. That is a discrepancy.
Elsewhere on the Interwebz, the unfortunately named Nerdrotic called the show “an absolute disaster.” Mediaholic’s review was titled “Warrior Galadriel is A DISASTER” (their All Caps, not mine).
Mind you, these two brutal external reviews were the top two results from searching on IMDB, which Amazon owns. Only Gandalf, who’s used to looking at malevolent creatures in the eye, knows how hideous some of the other reviews are.
Amazon no longer has a wizard at the helm, with Jeff Bezos partying down in retirement. What’s left, minus the magic, are tactics like the review delay.
In many ways, the fight against Internet trolls and review bombing is a little like the endurance test that Elrond goes through in the Dwarven kingdom as he tries to build a political alliance in one of the first episodes. A lot of stones are getting broken these days, for little obvious use.
But at least Amazon and some other companies are trying to reclaim reviews for the rest of us.
Jay Chandrasekhar, who directed and starred in the 2001 Fox Searchlight feature Super Troopers, partnered recently with two software developers to launch a review app called Vouch Vault. The service focuses on connecting users to the shows their social connections like or love, and only those. Nothing negative, and nothing from no-name nerds.
When it debuted two decades ago, Super Troopers had the opposite challenge of The Rings of Power. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes roasted the film, but fans gave it a stout 90% positive rating. It went on to gross $23.1 million in theaters, very solid numbers back then, especially for an indie comedy with no prominent stars.
“When my film, Super Troopers, showed at Sundance, it played to big, laughing crowds,” Chandrasekhar said in announcing Vouch Vault. “But when it was publicly released, the reviewers didn’t agree. In spite of the negative Rotten Tomatoes reviewer score, Super Troopers was embraced by the general public and became a hit. At the time, I remember thinking, ‘Who even are these reviewers? They’re just strangers with outsized opinions.’”
The ranks of reviewers with outsized opinions and motivations have only swelled in the years since, even as those with actual professional backgrounds and training have diminished. Perhaps Vouch Vault’s reliance on positive recommendations from people a user actually knows will bypass the worst trolls. It’s certainly an interesting alternative approach.
Boing Boing just highlighted a very different kind of review site, Scary Meter, whose users rank movies “on their creepiness, gore level, and how much "jumpiness" they induce.” The resulting Scary Meter rankings help horror fans find the shows they’re most likely to love.
Scary Meter’s niche-focused approach mirrors that of more and more streaming sites, which are trying to super-serve narrow groups of hardcore genre fans. Consider it a “niche reviews for niche fans” approach, where the opinions are at least more likely to be based on the shared values of that particular fanbase.
More generally, however, as trolls and bad actors further debase the currency of reviews, perhaps it’s time to pull back from relying on reviews at all. Yes, we still have to wade through countless shows in the streaming universe. But it’s increasingly difficult to get reliable opinions that aren’t soaked in bile and bad intent. We definitely need some new approaches.
As actor Geoff Morrell’s Waldreg (not to be confused with the Geoff Morrell who briefly was Disney’s chief spokesperson) tells Nazanin Boniadi’s Bronwyn in The Rings of Power: “I’ve seen landslides less dangerous than a wayward tongue. And without proof or puddin’, that’s all it’s going to be.”
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David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline, Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.