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Is 'House of Cards' the Future of Television, or Simply a Forgettable Netflix Experiment?

On February 1st, Netflix released the first 13 episodes of the first season of House of Cards, marking a potentially monumental shift in the way we watch content. By now it’s very likely a number of you have seen the entirety of the series starring Kevin Spacey. While it’s not the first original series for Netflix (that would be Lilyhammer), House of Cards is one of the most (if not the most) expensive television shows in history, and has attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood — like director David Fincher. But will the experiment work, or will binge-viewing ultimately hurt those who produce content?

If you haven’t seen it, check out the trailer for the series:

Here is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings talking about the future of television content:

Changing the Model

The show is Netflix’s attempt at satisfying TV viewers, who, according to their research, prefer to watch seasons all at once, rather than waiting each week for a new episode. The entire venture came about thanks to the unbelievable amount of data mining that occurs within their systems. Andrew Leonard of Salon explains:

In 2012, for the first time ever, Americans watched more movies legally delivered via the Internet than on physical formats like Blu-Ray discs or DVDs. The shift signified more than a simple switch in formats; it also marked a major difference in how much information the providers of online programming can gather about our viewing habits. Netflix is at the forefront of this sea change, a pioneer straddling the intersection where Big Data and entertainment media intersect. With “House of Cards,” we’re getting our first real glimpse at what this new world will look like.

For at least a year, Netflix has been explicit about its plans to exploit its Big Data capabilities to influence its programming choices. “House of Cards” is one of the first major test cases of this Big Data-driven creative strategy. For almost a year, Netflix executives have told us that their detailed knowledge of Netflix subscriber viewing preferences clinched their decision to license a remake of the popular and critically well-regarded 1990 BBC miniseries. Netflix’s data indicated that the same subscribers who loved the original BBC production also gobbled down movies starring Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. Therefore, concluded Netflix executives, a remake of the BBC drama with Spacey and Fincher attached was a no-brainer, to the point that the company committed $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

I think this is the beginning of the end for traditional TV. That doesn’t mean we won’t still watch content on an actual television set (that’s actually how I viewed House of Cards), but users want their media anytime, anywhere, and that’s exactly how Netflix wants to give it to them. Keeping media scarce and precious is over. Sports programming, like last night’s Super Bowl, is one of the major reasons people still keep cable subscriptions, but that sort of content is now finding its way online legally, bypassing the service providers altogether. Whether all of this is good for content creators or not, users want everything right now, or they’ll go and get it from someone else.

Netflix is borrowing the content model from traditional pay TV stations like HBO, Starz, and Showtime, but is reinventing the distribution model because it’s not tied down by the symbiotic relationship that service providers have with their channels. The issue with this model, of course, is that spending $100 million on every show is not sustainable when the subscription fee of $8 a month is all-inclusive. I’m sure Netflix realizes this, but a flagship show like House of Cards with lots of brand-name talent will probably go a long way towards increasing their subscriber base. There is another issue I haven’t seen many talk about: if Netflix makes all of their original content available all at once and permanently, what will stop people from subscribing once a year just to binge-watch all of their original programming? I’m sure Netflix is hoping the cost is low enough that people stick around for the other thousands of movies and TV shows.

How Will This Affect You, the Content Creator?

If you make content, surely this is a bit worrisome. Once audiences get used to wanting to consume massive amounts of media all at once, it means they aren’t coming back unless you’ve got something new to show them. Though the cost of the tools has come down dramatically, putting an entire production together and telling good stories is still as difficult as it’s ever been. The one thing web creators had over television creators is that they were completely separate mediums. Now that the lines are blurred — if not completely dissolved — consumers will likely look for the same kind of quality on the web that they’re now finding on television. It will no longer be acceptable to have lower standards just because it’s “made for the web.”

The huge positive to this, however, is that internet content is capable of serving a very specific niche. Shows or movies don’t need to serve the lowest common denominator, and as long as you create something for a specific audience, you don’t have to waste time trying to convince everyone to come and watch it. This could also mean more jobs in the creative fields. While budgets for online content will likely be much lower compared to current TV shows, the potential audience is literally anyone with an internet connection. You’re not limited by having your content on one channel in specific countries — content can be ubiquitous, thereby giving you a fighting chance at sustainability on the web.

Now That’s a House of Cards

An interview with Kevin Spacey about the show:

House of Cards is a rather biting look at politics and political corruption, as well as journalistic integrity and standards — and just about everything in-between involving human ethics and morals. It oozes with David Fincher’s aesthetic and directing choices, though he was only at the helm for 2 of the 13 episodes. Shot on the RED EPIC, the production values are right up there with any major motion picture, and each episode could stand alone as its own mini feature film.

Since it is based on the BBC show of the same name, it carries over one quirk which you’ll either love or hate: Kevin Spacey’s character, Frank Underwood, is constantly breaking the fourth wall to deliver monologues to the audience, or glancing occasionally at the camera to let you know his true feelings. It’s not too dissimilar to voiceover, but it can be quite jarring just as you’re getting into the flow of an episode. Besides that storytelling device, House of Cards manages to be a relevant and interesting commentary on politics (and journalism) in the United States, much the same way as Showtime’s Homeland or Starz’s (now cancelled) Boss.

While the stakes are never quite as high as they are in Homeland, and the tone and mood are certainly lighter and more playful at times than Boss (but definitely less playful than HBO’s Veep), it’s quite a ride, and I think it’s worth at least one viewing, if only for Spacey’s performance and Fincher’s aesthetic.

The entire series is available free to all Netflix subscribers, and the first episode will be available to watch without a subscription in all Netflix territories for one month.

What do you think of Netflix’s move? Do you believe this will change the way we view content? As a content creator, do you think this will affect the way you work?

Link: House of Cards — Netflix

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