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The Latest From PBS's 'Frontline,' ‘Amazon Empire,’ is the Very Definition of TV Worth Watching
February 18, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

Pity poor Jeff Bezos. You may have more in common with Amazon founder than you might think.

You both have to deal with inflation, for one.

Yes, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, very rich people are not like you and me. It's all a question of scale. And when Bezos battles inflation, he faces it bigly so.

Consider, if you will: The Wall Street Journal reported just this past week that Bezos set a new property price record in Los Angeles when he purchased an estate in Beverly Hills for $165 million.

That's outrageous. Someone has clearly taken Bezos for a ride. David Geffen bought the nine-acre estate, featuring the archetypal studio mogul home once owned by Jack Warner, for a mere $47.5m in 1990. In Jack Warner's day, Errol Flynn worked the bar at parties, Olivia de Havilland was Howard Hughes' date, and Jimmy Stewart sat on a stool. When Jack Warner died in 1978, his widow, Ann Warner, reportedly turned down an offer of $25m for the estate. Only a rube like David Geffen would pay nearly double that just 12 years later. As it happened, Geffen auctioned off about $11m of furnishings to help sweeten the deal.

But still, $165 million?

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. Not even the author of The Great Gatsby could have foreseen a day like today when the level of inequality has reached frankly unbelievable levels. It would've been hard for the author of Great Gatsby, too, to envision a figure like Bezos – which is where Tuesday's PBS Frontline program Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos (9 p.m. ET, check local listings) comes in.

Frontline doesn't impose an opinion; like most solid journalism, it takes a step back and seeks to answer some basic questions. How did Amazon come into being? How did Bezos get so rich so quickly, and what does it mean for society — and the economy — at large as the country moves inexorably toward one of the most potentially divisive elections in the nation's history.

For all the talk about inequality, though, it's an election where the issue of Amazon workers' health and safety is unlikely to be raised in a debate.

Frontline opens with a Bezos announcement from last May — project Blue Moon, his bid to establish a viable space colony on the moon. The future on Earth is finite, Bezos said: It's time to spread to the stars. "The Great Disruptor" is looking for new horizons for his expanding empire. "Think about this," Bezos has said. "Big things start small."

The Frontline program was more than a year in the making, and it starts at the beginning — not in Silicon Valley but on Wall Street. It's a shock to see the young Bezos, with hair, less than five minutes into the program talking cheerfully to a TV local-news camera crew about how the untapped business potential of the then-new World Wide Web. He was looking for a business plan that made sense in the context of the growth of the Internet in its early days. He settled, oddly enough, on books, not because of any great source of enjoyment or enlightenment books may hold but because, as a business opportunity, they provided more variety and categories than any other product.

"I picked books as the first, best product to sell online," Bezos explained at the time. "Because books are incredibly unusual in one respect, that is that there are more items in the book category than there are items in any other category by far. So, to have that many items, you can literally build a store online that doesn't exist any other way."

Fast forward several decades, and Amazon is now considered the bête noire of independent booksellers everywhere.

One of the first names Bezos considered for his new enterprise was relentless.com. Imagine how different Amazon's trajectory might have been if it had been saddled with a bogus, misleading name to begin with. By turning instead to Amazon, Bezos learned an early lesson in the power of marketing.

Frontline gained access to nearly a dozen former decision-makers behind Amazon's early days, and the program gains valuable insight as a result. The story is told chronologically — we know how this tale ends, after all — and while there are no major surprises or revelations along the way, watching Amazon Empire come together is like watching a jigsaw puzzle slowly take shape from dozens of tiny pieces. An idea is one thing, Bezos is fond of saying, but execution is another. As a company – and an empire – Amazon was a masterclass in execution.

The watershed year was 2011, the program reveals near the midpoint. That was the year Amazon mushroomed virtually overnight from fast-growing outlier to societal and financial behemoth — no longer a place to buy books but a place to buy everything from groceries to everyday household goods.

This is also the time Amazon came under heightened scrutiny for everything from worker safety to subcontracting delivery to outside companies with lax rules, to tax avoidance, to third-party sellers that haven't been properly vetted.

And then, in 2014, inspired in no small part by Bezos' childhood affection for the original Star Trek TV series, Amazon produced Alexa — a talking computer that combined the wonders of artificial intelligence with everyday mundane household chores. We know about the iPhone and the way it changed the way we do things; Amazon Empire shows how, with less fanfare, Alexa may have just as profound and widespread an effect on the way we lead our everyday lives.

And through it all, Bezos has become a very wealthy man indeed. Wealthy enough to buy a nine-acre $165m estate in Beverly Hills once owned by studio mogul Jack Warner.

Amazon Empire is two hours long, double Frontline's usual running time. That sounds like a long time to tell to a familiar tale, but the pace is brisk, and the small insights along the way add up to a thoughtful and revealing take on human nature and why we all make the decisions we do — whether it's what book to buy next or how our personal tastes and habits are being mined for targeted advertising. Half-an-hour into a two-hour program, Amazon Empire is no longer about a company that's buying and selling products but a company more interested in data mining and how knowledge about customers' tastes and habits drives market share. The consumer at home is now the canary in the gold mine, a mine that's producing vast quantities of gold for its founder and owner.

Amazon Empire provides much food for thought, but not enough for me to get rid of my Kindle. Frontline is in the information business — much like Amazon — but it's not driven by profit. It's about information for information's sake, knowledge as power. It won't make you walk away from Amazon, but it will tell you more about how it works and the ideas that drive it. "Democracy dies in darkness," Bezos famously said, when he bought The Washington PostFrontline is determined to see that doesn't happen. Amazon Empire is the very definition of TV worth watching.

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Jan 27, 2023   |  Reply
I went through the process of hiring at an Amazon warehouse. First off-they told everyone to have their high school diploma ready. This was 2010. I graduated in 1969. Called their bluff. Uh uh. Back home and a search for the diploma. Found in minutes and I don't know why it was so easy. Back to the "job fair." Another guy I saw earlier now had a huge framed diploma. Only it wasn't from high school-it was from U.of Penn,an ivy league place. Hoped they would accept it-they did. Retired-he just wanted a part-time job for gas money,but we both went through the process. My retail experience included music and books. 8 yrs. as a warehouse schlub. 4-5 hours later,I was designated to the temp pile. I went through this just to explore-my schlub job paid more with less hassle. Stories from others who made the grade,then tossed. Local newspaper stories of unhealthy work practices made international headlines. Back then-no AC-110 degrees-they gave out popsicles and rented an ambulance.
Feb 18, 2020   |  Reply
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