Amazon's "Lord of the Rings" spinoff, "The Rings of Power," launched on Prime Video September 1.
The show was hit by "review bombing," where users try to depress review scores.
The original Tolkien series has a rabid fan base. Upsetting them could hurt Amazon.
Though critics have praised the series' scope and ambition, "The Rings of Power" has rankled with audiences, who gave the show a 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (By contrast, Peter Jackson's early 2000s Lord of the Rings trilogy earned audience scores of between 86-95% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Even on Amazon-owned IMDb, audiences rated "The Rings of Power" an anemic 6.8/10.
Amazon has said 25 million households viewed the "Rings" premiere on its first day, but it's not clear how the company measures views. HBO's "House of the Dragon," which drew nearly 10 million viewers for its premiere last month, is performing much better than "Rings" by some measures. "Dragon" has an 8.8/10 rating on IMDb and an 85% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.
For each show's three-day post-debut window, "Dragon" attracted 51% more viewers than "Rings," according to data from Whip Media, which measures viewership (as well as sentiment, anticipation, and other factors) based on 23 million users of its TV Time tracking app.
An Amazon spokesperson disputed that "Rings" was underperforming HBO's offering, arguing that audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes had been unfairly lowered by a "review bombing" campaign orchestrated by malicious online actors.
Counterintuitively, "The Lord of the Rings'" rabid fan base, including those obsessed with JRR Tolkien's original books, may bear some blame for Amazon's challenges.
"It will be impossible for Amazon to please the millions of Tolkien fans, despite the enormous budget for the series," Tom Forte, an analyst for investment firm D.A. Davidson. wrote in a recent note — titled "Jar Jar Binks Ruined My Adulthood" — that drew comparisons between the response to "The Rings of Power" and "Star Wars" fans' outrage over the 1999 movie "The Phantom Menace."
"There is bound to be a character, plot, subplot, line etc. in the series that will upset/disappoint many passionate fans and there is, even, a risk that the series itself will prove disappointing," Forte continued.
Amazon paused viewer reviews amid potential 'review bombing'
Negative user reviews signal a "greater than zero" risk that some Prime members could cancel their subscriptions, Forte said in an interview. Part of Amazon's strategy with big-budget streaming video content is to entice more people to subscribe to Prime because they often end up buying many other products and services from the company.
On its own Prime Video platform, Amazon disabled viewers' ability to review "The Rings of Power," to protect the series from an onslaught of incendiary reviews.
User reviews are unique to Prime Video in the streaming space, as other services don't have audience ratings. Amazon's review pause came amid potential "review bombing" on aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.
"Review bombing" is a potent and sneaky phenomenon. It occurs when users intentionally try to lower a movie or show's audience score in bad faith, often with apparent racist or sexist motivations. (It's happened before with movies like Marvel's "Black Panther," which had a predominantly Black cast.)
In the case of "The Rings of Power," some fans have ridiculed the series for including characters of color. Not all of the reviews have expressed racist views — much of the audience criticism appears to be authentic, largely over the show's slow pace so far. Still, there were no reviews at all on Prime Video itself until more than a week after the series premiered.
"Even if it was well-meaning, turning off reviews was a bad look," Forte said. "That's only going to make things appear worse."
By September 9, Amazon finally allowed reviews. The ratings averaged 3.4 stars out of 5, with just over 12,000 reviews as of Wednesday morning.
'If you are a Tolkien fan - you will not like this'
On other review sites, people leaving negative reviews said "The Rings of Power" was a break from the spirit of Tolkien's work.
"Cover your eyes, lest this morgul filth of a show taint your love of Tolkien," one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer, who gave the series half a star, wrote. "The story is NOT TOLKIEN - If you are a Tolkien Fan - you will not like this," another half-star reviewer wrote.
One hardcore Tolkien fan echoed those comments on Twitter: "Tolkien is turning in his grave," Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote.
Still, other analysts said it was highly unlikely that Prime members would cancel over disappointment with a single TV show. Prime subscribers rarely cancel, AB Bernstein analyst Mark Shmulik noted.
"It's too early to judge whether this is going to be a success or a failure," Shmulik told Insider, pointing to the importance of how audiences respond to subsequent episodes. "What's the ability to keep excitement up? What's the rate of viewership decline for the next episodes? Those are important metrics to measure."
Indeed, it's likely that audience scores for the series will improve in coming weeks as people who are less invested in Tolkien's original books watch the series, Forte predicted.
'It has to succeed. There's no option.'
Amazon has said the 25 million viewers of "Rings'" first episodes made it the company's "biggest premiere ever."
Amazon executives will be closely watching what percentage of all Prime Video streams the project represents and how many inactive Prime accounts logged on to watch "The Rings of Power," Insider previously reported.
An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to questions about how many Prime subscribers have watched "The Rings of Power" since its premiere. The company has previously said that more than 200 million Prime subscribers watch Amazon's streaming content.
Amazon insiders, meanwhile, have said the future of Amazon Studios hinges on "The Rings of Power" being a success.
"If it doesn't succeed, there's going to be a big question from Andy Jassy and the board," one former senior Amazon Studios exec previously told Insider. "If we can't take this piece of IP and make it successful, why is Amazon Studios even here?"
"It has to succeed," this person added. "There's no option."
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