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The Amazon Prime Video ‘Purge’: Why the Massive SVOD Library Appears to Have Fewer Titles to Binge on These Days

Universal Pictures' 'The Purge'
Amazon Prime Video may have, er, purged its ranks of small, documentary films, but you can still binge Universal Pictures titles including 'The Purge' on the service. (Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Is Amazon Prime Video conducting a purge to our binge?

“Something has been decidedly afoot at Amazon Prime Video in the last few months, and it’s time to call attention to it,” Paste Magazine’s Jim Vorel recently wrote. 

Besides the content acquisition executives who work for the major subscription video-on-demand platforms, Vorel probably knows the vast Amazon Prime Video library as well as anyone. 

“When you spend the amount of time we do compiling lists of the best films streaming on all the major streaming services, you can’t help but eventually know those libraries like the back of your hand,” he noted. 

And the Amazon Prime Video library, he said, is “enduring one of the biggest apparent purges of content we’ve ever seen.” 

So how big is Amazon’s Prime Video library? Has it really shrunk? And if so, what’s it been reduced to?

Amazon will only say that its library has “thousands” of titles, and it doesn’t release a specific count of movies and TV shows. Vorel doesn’t know exactly how big it is, either, but he told us in an email conversation that he believes it “dwarfs” the title counts of Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu and all other SVOD competitors. 

Getting an exact handle on that title count, Vorel added, is tricky, since Amazon’s Prime Video UI makes it “extremely painful to use for browsing films.” 

Amazon would not confirm to us that its SVOD library is indeed shrinking. But it undoubtedly lost titles due to a  February policy change to its Amazon Video Direct platform, which lets independent filmmakers and other video creators share their work on Amazon Prime Video. The company announced that was “no longer accepting unsolicited licensing submissions via Prime Video Direct for nonfiction and short-form content.”

As this Recode story explains, the Amazon Prime Video library had come to be known as a kind of no holds barred place for wacky user-generated content, which by some estimates made up as much as two-thirds of the overall title count. 

In the misinformation age, was Amazon’s Video Direct policy change an attempt to limit the company’s liability? Again, Amazon wouldn’t say, but maybe some cleaning up was in order.

As Vorel noted, the combined effect of the user-generated content glut, and Amazon’s subpar search and recommendation software tools, mean that “award-winning quality selections [are] often discovered 100 pages or more into a veritable no-man’s land of zero-budget garbage.”

In any event, some legit documentary filmmakers appear to have been left out in the cold. 

Documentarian Robert Steven Williams said he mortgaged $40,000 of his own home to produce Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, under the assumption that the well-reviewed nonfiction film would recoup much of its costs via Amazon Prime Video revenue sharing. 

“On the day before we were taken down, full-page reviews of the film ran in the Chicago TribuneThe Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant. All are publications with huge readership, a tremendous coup for Gatsby in Connecticut, but those articles directed readers to Amazon Prime. The next day, without warning or explanation, we were purged. My distributor couldn’t get anyone to respond to an email—forget about getting a person to answer a phone,” Williams blogged on the International Documentary Association (IDA) website

Amazon wouldn’t tell us just how many titles have been, er, purged from its library because of the Amazon Video Direct policy change. And again, Vorel said the seemingly intentional “brokenness” of the Amazon Prime Video user interface makes it hard to even hazard a guess. 

For example, just trying to search through the Prime Video sci-fi catalog is virtually impossible, he said. 

“It quickly becomes apparent that there is no obvious way to view that full list of sci-fi movies, suggesting that Amazon doesn’t want consumers to be able to easily find that kind of information—its user experience is built around you choosing one of the small handful of suggested films, or knowing in advance what you want to see and then specifically searching it out,” Vorel said. 

“This is what a trillion dollar company, owned by the richest man on Earth, considers to be an acceptable user interface?,” he asked.

Of course, Amazon didn’t become a giant with a $1.69 trillion market capitalization by not knowing how to efficiently monetize things like video libraries. And here’s where things get really tricky. When searching for titles in Amazon Prime Video, movies and shows in the ad-supported IMDb TV library, as well as those available under rental and sale transactional terms surface alongside those available for viewing ad-free at no extra charge beyond the $119-a-year/$12.99-a-month Amazon Prime membership. 

The Amazon rep we spoke to explained that contractual terms for titles are always in flux. Some movies and shows may have their SVOD terms lapse, for example, but they’re still available for transactional video on demand (TVOD). 

Sure, recent policy changes may have curtailed the amount of titles from smaller creators coming through Amazon Video Direct, but Amazon is still licensing--and buying outright--lots of content from big-name creators. Besides its $8.45 billion deal in May to buy MGM, Amazon just entered distribution deals with Universal Pictures and Sony for Norman Lear-produced TV series, for example. 

But here's a key question: Is Amazon increasingly these days licensing movies and shows for AVOD and TVOD, and less so for SVOD? The rep said she’d get back to us on this.

Daniel Frankel

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. His reliable mid-range jump shot, deft ambidextrous post-up game and tough interior defense have been criminally overlooked.