Peter Kafka

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Amazon’s “West Wing” Exclusive Could Be Very Short

Aaron Sorkin fans with a jones for his “West Wing” days can now get their fix: Amazon has added the series, along with “Fringe” and other Warner Bros.-produced shows, to its Prime Instant Video offering.

It’s now standard issue for Amazon and Netflix to announce new additions to their subscription video catalogs, but this one has a slight twist. Amazon will have “West Wing” and “Fringe” exclusively — but that exclusive only lasts “for the summer.”

What happens after that? It’s not clear: Amazon will continue to have access to the show, but other digital video subscription services could also offer it, if they’re willing to pay up. So Amazon’s exclusive could effectively last beyond the summer, or it could end in a couple of months.

It’s a small deal any way you cut it. But in the big picture, it points out that the value of “exclusive” content is still a fluid notion for digital distributors like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu.

All three of them are going to offer many of the same shows, because content owners like to sell their stuff as many times as they can. So you can see “Battlestar Galactica” on both Hulu and Netflix, for instance. And you can see “Dora the Explorer” on both Netflix and Amazon.

But all three distributors also want stuff that distinguishes their catalogs from those of their competitors. Not necessarily because they think consumers will pick one service or another, but because they want to give consumers a reason to add their service to their entertainment offerings.

How they do that is more art than science.

On the one hand, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been willing to make very expensive bets to get his hands on upcoming originals like “House of Cards” and new episodes of “Arrested Development”, both slated to run next year. But apparently Hastings’ team wasn’t willing to outbid Amazon for access to “West Wing”.

Meanwhile Hulu, whose main selling point is its co-exclusive access to broadcast TV shows, has made a point of producing small-scale original programming, like its “Day in the Life” documentary series. And next year, it will be the first U.S. distribution outlet for new episodes of “In the Thick of It,” a BBC comedy (from the same team that brought HBO its “Veep” series).

To date, video sellers tell me, Amazon has not been an aggressive buyers when content comes on the market — Jeff Bezos’ team has had a reputation for being fairly indiscriminate about what it acquires, and not particularly interested in outbidding competitors. But in this case, Amazon was willing to pay for something no one else would have — at least for six weeks.

That said, if you’re willing to watch the show in two-minute clips, it’s quite easy to get the West Wing online without going through Amazon — YouTube has a very large selection, of varying quality:

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