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It's 'Transparent': Amazon Poised to Take On Netflix

Can Amazon beat Netflix at its own game? When "Transparent" launches on Friday, the online retailer throws down the streaming gauntlet.

As an actor, six-time Emmy nominee Jeffrey Tambor is sitting pretty. His new “role of a lifetime,” as he calls it, playing a man who has summoned the courage to be the woman he feels he has always been on Amazon Studios’ new show “Transparent," is earning him rave reviews. It’s also turned the 70-year-old veteran stage, film and TV actor into one of the Cool Kids of the Internet streaming era—if not the coolest.

Tambor is the first actor to appear on two made-for-streaming original series: “Arrested Development” for Netflix and now “Transparent” for its competitor, Amazon. In the latter, which premieres Friday, Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman, a senior citizen with three grown children who is beginning to transition from the identity of Mort Pfefferman. It's a role Tambor calls “transformative.”

But he could also be speaking for the studio that made “Transparent” possible. Amazon created its production unit in 2010 and launched its first original series, “Alpha House,” starring John Goodman last year. With its unique viewer selection pilot process (more on this shortly) Amazon Studios caught the attention of a quickly changing industry, but had yet to deliver on acclaim and buzz.

Enter Tambor with his shoulder-length wig and dresses starring in a series that couldn't be timelier, with gender equality at the nation's political forefront and the popularity of the Emmy-nominated Laverne Cox of "Orange is the New Black." With “Transparent,” a series created by Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight” and “Six Feet Under”) and praised by many TV critics as the best show of the fall season, Amazon poses a legitimate threat to the award-winning pioneer Netflix. Not to mention the cable universe, the birthplace of edgy TV.

“A lot of very fine actors are moving to this," Tambor said. "It used to be, ‘Just hang in there, I’ll get you a movie.’ Well, no one wants a movie. We want this. Actors will always go where the content is and where the roles are. And the roles are here.”

The People Have Spoken

Amazon Studios made a splash last year when it posted 14 pilots for Amazon customers to review. Viewers fill out a survey, offering Amazon executives unprecedented feedback. The extensive data collected includes how much an episode was viewed, the rating, and how many users shared it with friends.

Armed with specific information, executives can take more chances, director Roy Price told NBC News. “Alpha House,” a comedy created by Garry Trudeau, about four politicians who share a house, became the streaming service’s first comedy selected through that process. Last month, Amazon launched its third pilot season with five shows, including “The Cosmopolitans,” starring Chloë Sevigny and Adam Brody, and “Hand of God,” starring Ron Perlman and Dana Delaney.

“The new environment of on-demand and the ability to have such a really, really large focus group permits us to see what shows might have a smaller but more passionate audience in the pilot,” Price said. “It helps high quality shows or cutting-edge shows that are a little bit ahead of the curve. It helps them get a really good chance. If you don’t have that size audience and you don’t have insight into what they’re saying, you might not be able to perceive that there really is a passionate group of fans.”

Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in "Transparent."Beth Dubber

It is a starkly different and deeper method than the one employed by traditional networks, which typically show pilots to small focus groups and briefly poll them, or even the strategy used by Netflix, which avoids making a pilot altogether and relies on the service’s top-secret algorithms to assess how a potential project might fare. In essence, it eliminates the need for a creative hunch.

“That [process] was very thrilling,” said the 49-year-old Soloway, who feels she was "put on this earth" to create the Pfeffermans, a semi-autobiographical story about her own father's transgender journey.

“If you create a show for one of the networks, you know that the fate of your show is in the hands of some random people in a mall somewhere behind two-way glass," she added. "You never know who those people are or what they think. As a feminist woman, when networks said, ‘We’re going to test your stuff in front of an audience,’ it felt like they were saying, ‘We’re going to go test your stuff with people who hate feminists and make sure they don’t notice that you’re a feminist.’ The fact that Amazon says we can find enough people who love it that we can pay for it, it’s huge.”

Although the TV business is dramatically evolving, one aspect stays the same, says Joe Lewis, Amazon’s head of comedy. “If you look at the history of television, the batting average of finding hit shows hasn’t gotten any better,” Lewis told NBC News in an interview. “Our pilot process allows us try out every element of a production. We don’t say America’s not ready for a transgender show because, what do we know about what America actually feels like? This allows us to do something that hasn’t been done before and it allows us to put our confidence in someone like Jill and allow her to make the show she wants to make. And America gets to weigh in on it.”

'No one wants a movie. We want this.'

For the first time, Amazon will embrace how “watching television is becoming more novelistic” and offer all 10 episodes of "Transparent" on Amazon Prime at once, Price said. The studio has ordered a new season of “Alpha House” and three more series: the comedy “Mozart in the Jungle” starring Malcolm McDowell, which will premiere later this year; and “The After” by Chris Carter (“The X Files”) and Michael Connelly’s “Bosch,” starring Titus Welliver (“Lost”), which will premiere next year. The studio will decide how to release the shows on a case-by-case basis.

Tambor, who jokes that the only thing he binges on is food, says he is excited about the prospect of viewers watching all five hours in one sitting. Playing Maura has made him so nervous he’s been nauseous, Tambor said. But it’s not typical performance anxiety.

“I want to make sure I do it right for the community,” Tambor said. “Jill said at our opening table read that this is about [people feeling safe] to be able to make courageous decisions in their lives and be accepted. It’s about connectedness. We’re responsible for one another. What we’re doing seems to be throwing light on a subject that needs light and love and warmth and understanding. It’s not the whole answer but it goes a way toward moving the conversation way up.”