PBS ended its day Friday at the TCA Winter Press Tour with Frontline’s Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos — and if you’ve been thinking about your own Amazon addiction, this program will make you think more than twice.
Frontline producer James Jacoby was blunt in his assessment of the company, “There’s a military-like precision to their operation which is awesome but it also comes at a cost and the film explores that cost to the labor force as well as the environment.” Jacoby noted, “Taking stock of where the empire is now is really our focus. Forty percent of all computing in the cloud happens on Amazon Web Service (AWS.) PBS, for instance, is housed on AWS. I think that they claim that Alexa is embedded in more than 20,000 different devices.”
Franklin Foer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, has written about Amazon’s unstoppable growth. He added, “It began as a bookstore, then it became the everything store and now it’s the everything company. The comfort we have with Amazon has us inviting it further and further into our home. I think that the essential question the film asks is how, when you have a company so cemented into our existence, that’s an increasingly an entertainment powerhouse, that is a major contractor with the federal government, what does it mean to have so much power concentrated in one company? What does it mean to have so much power harbored in a single individual?”
Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has studied Amazon for years and says the central question is the power Amazon has from a democracy perspective, “It’s not just its size. Amazon has structural power. If you make or retail anything, if you want to reach the online market, you have to ride Amazon’s rails. You have to be on AWS.” Mitchell further explained, “It’s a fundamentally different kind of monopoly problem. Now these independent businesses have a bitter decision: if they choose to sell on Amazon, they give up a lot of their revenue and product knowledge. If they don’t sell on Amazon, where else are they going to go? Are they going to give up the online market?”
Jacoby said they had access to some Amazon executives and when questioned about these issues, the executives say that if businesses want to reach customers, they’re Amazon Prime members. Jacoby said, “They think they’re doing a huge service to small businesses.”
The Frontline special also examines the course of Bezos’s career from the mid 1990s to the present. Jacoby said, “You certainly do see a physical transformation, and you also do see his cultivation of this very goofy, affable image from early on. And some of his early employees talk to us about how that belied a sort of his Napoleonic ambition.”
Jacoby also talked about how Bezos has always been fascinated by Thomas Edison and “Jeff has sort of modeled him in some ways as the Edison of our times. And at the same time, we’re learning about his relationship with Wall Street, that Wall Street has really invested in him and allowed him this leeway to fail.”
Mitchell added that the relationship between Amazon and Washington, D.C. is a very close one as Amazon spends more on lobbying than any other corporation, noting that Bezos recently bought the largest mansion in D.C. Mitchell opined, “As a democracy, we should be very uneasy about it.”
Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos airs February 18 on PBS.