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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

COMMENT POLICY

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  • 10 episodes in and I’m loving it, its got awesome production value, great acting, direction, set design, cinematography etc.
    I actually liked the way they used the kevin spacey monologues, added a cool element to the show’s dynamic.

    • I felt like the 4th wall breaks are needed, you would never understand who is character really is with out it.

  • I’m just wondering what will happen when the first golden globe goes to a show that is not on cable. Kevin Spacey’s performance is up there!

    • You’re probably thinking “Emmy” instead of GG. Golden Globes are awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and don’t really carry much weight as an award (akin to MTV Movie Awards or People’s Choice Awards”. The Emmy’s are the Oscars of television.

  • Absolutely loved the series. There was an excellent article on Salon about how Netflix using “Big Data” to piece together a show based on what Netflix users liked: Political Thrillers, Kevin Spacey, David Fincher, and marathon-viewing as an option.

  • Loved the show. The cinematography is oddly most flawed in Fincher’s episodes but they were probably still working through the kinks then.

  • earnest reply on 02.4.13 @ 2:00PM

    I’m not a fan of being able to binge on TV shows like this. I didn’t know it until now, having the option with House of Cards, but I like having wait for my favorite shows, especially Mad Men. It creates suspense as it were and gives me something to look forward to. If most other people like their series all 13 eps at once that’s going to be a huge pain in the ass for us indie/low budget filmmakers who want to get a show off the ground.

    On a separate note, while I think House of Cards is really well done on all fronts, writing, acting, directing, it’s a f****ing depressing narrative. Too disturbing for me at this time in my life. I’ll stick with Downton Abbey. It won’t give me nightmares.

  • Nick Wernham on 02.4.13 @ 2:10PM

    I’m not sure about the long term implications of this move by Netflix and what influence it may have, but the show is good enough that it’s sure to have some measurable effect on distribution models going forward. I know quite a few people who are considering reupping to Netflix just to watch this show.

    As a huge fan of the original BBC series with Ian Richardson this is a worthy successor. Spacey is incredible as FU.

  • when will netflix pick up shorts?

    • Great idea. I hope sooner than later! It’d be so great for wanting to watch something while eating time of life.

    • never there is nothing that distributors care less about then short film

      • Distributors haven’t been keen on shorts because they’re hard to program in traditional time slots. The beauty of the new viewing paradigm is that those artificially created blocks of time are going away. It’s now a constant stream of programming. It’d be an interesting experiment to try throwing short films into the mix and see what happens.

  • marklondon on 02.4.13 @ 3:13PM

    It’s already changed the game. :-)

  • $100 mil for two seasons = $50 million a 13ep season or $3.8 million/episode. Some other show costs:

    Boardwalk Empire Pilot: $18 million
    Game of Thrones: $~5-6 million/ep
    Camelot: $5-6 million/ep
    Boardwalk Empire: $4-5 million/ep
    Fringe: $4 million/ep
    House of Cards: $3.8 million/ep

    Expensive and certainly the most expensive non-broadcast series, But definitely not THE most expensive show on TV.

    • Nick Hiltgen on 02.4.13 @ 10:12PM

      Sometimes I wonder if the writers of these articles do any research at all before they assert their “facts”. Oh we’ll for some reason I keep coming back to the website I guess they’re doing something right…

      • House of Cards is one of the most (if not the most) expensive television shows in history”

        I’m not assuming to know all of their financials, and am certainly not stating a fact in that sentence about it being the most expensive – just saying it’s one of the most – but could be the most, depending how you look at it (since no series has ever been given a $100 million commitment on day one before a frame has been shot). Does anyone know if they spent $70 million on Season 1 and will spend $30 million on Season 2? It’s not out of the question, and we also can’t assume any and all numbers floating around online for any of these series is necessarily correct.

        Let’s nitpick things that actually matter guys…

        • Jake Huddleston on 02.5.13 @ 12:17AM

          Just another tribute to the logic and thoroughness of the writers on NFS. Joe, you take criticism so well and I’ve noticed that often and just want to praise your for it. I’ve even seen times when someone has pointed out that you were wrong about something and you gracefully admitted it. You have great control and your responses are very well thought out. Always a fan. Keep up the good work.

          • +1, Joe, you’re a legend.

          • +1
            some writers (not saying on this site, I mean generally on the web) don’t even bother to read all the comments to their articles, let alone reply to them in a thoughtful manner.

  • I work on a network crime show and I have to say the most refreshing aspect of House of Cards is their use of On-Screen Graphics for text messages as opposed to constantly inserting on a VFX-ed phone. Texting is so often used these days as a story device, it’s really nice to see it artfully implemented.

    I’m very interested to see if/how this will be disruptive to traditional tv models. Every season there are a couple new shows that are essentially DOA and are often cancelled after two episodes. If networks now have to commit to a full season without the option to jump ship if ratings dive, they may be less willing to take chances on new ideas.

    • also loved how they implemented text messages

    • Swami Digital on 02.4.13 @ 7:28PM

      Well the show is a remake of a BBC show, and BBC’s Sherlock is the first place that I saw this version of text message graphics (and loved it). I don’t know if they were the first to do this, but there is a symmetry to thinking it is something adapted in the same way.

      • In Sherlock they really implemented a lot of text messaging because it is a crucial part of Sherlock’s character. He doesn’t like to call people, he texts them, and rather quickly.

        I think even if they wanted, they couldn’t have implemented that much text messaging with pseudo-VFX shots of cell phone screens, there was no other option than to use subtitles for it.

    • British teen soap opera ‘Hollyoaks’ has been doing it for years.. I’ve seen it a lot on UK tv and have wondered if it’s hitting saturation point – but it’s a good move to use it here if US audiences are less familiar.

  • In regards to ‘Changing The Model’ and the issue of binge watching, Peter at SlashFilm posted a twitter convo he had with producer Danna Brunetti about Netflix’s choice to release all 13 episodes at once: http://www.slashfilm.com/is-netflixs-full-season-release-strategy-a-smart-business-model/
    It’s an interesting discussion as both guys really know what they’re talking about and both seem to have valid arguments. Though I appreciate having the whole season instantly available, I don’t think it was the best business decision for Netflix in the longrun unless they’re going to follow it up by continuously producing new material.

  • I think it’s a double edged sword with offering an entire series online at once. The lack of immediacy by offering the whole series at once diminishes the value of a series as it creates a “just another whole SEASON of a show that I have to catch up on;” problem; it immediately places the viewer behind the curve.

    And although I think “broadcast date” will be replaced with a posting date, I think that the first run does have some value, as it stretches the newness of a particular season out for at least three months. By releasing the whole series at once in Feb. the entire series will be forgotten almost immediately, as there’s been no hype. There’s no water cooler talk of the series every week. In fact it immediately becomes troublesome even discussing the season with anyone as each person would (generally) either have seen the whole season, or has stopped somewhere in the season.

    It creates “spoiler alert” syndrome.

  • After reading all the above comments i’m surprised no one brought out how often this is happening already. With so many people waiting to DVR several episodes and just skipping it entirely till the “dvd” comes out. I find myself personally doing this more often now, especially now that i have two kids to deal with.
    While I feel this will NOT change the way all shows are filmed, it could be a great way to kick off a high profile new series. Instead of a 2 hour pilot, release the entire season 1, immediately for download with a regular weekly on broadcast.

  • I like having access to the season all at once. Sometimes, I am so wrapped in the story that I want to continue, sometimes I only have time for one episode. For me, this will make me hungry for more episodes when I reach the end. I prefer on demand viewing since I am hardly ever home to watch television in real time. I’ll pay a monthly fee to watch at my leisure and with the convenience of any device. Kevin Spacey rocks! This cast is a great ensemble. Although, I do think the storyline plays it safe at points. I’m looking for the edge I get from Homeland, Scandal and the like. Politics are so crazy! Score one for Netflix!

  • Crisp shots, excellent storyline, and Kate Mara matching Spacey with excellent acting, this show is as good as anything I’ve seen on Netflix. Regardless of the availability of episodes, the on-demand model is absolutely picking up steam, and if anything this series underscores what the networks don’t want people to see — that great content need not come at the cost of waiting.

    In the past decade theatrical-to-DVD releases were greatly enhanced as VOD started to emerge as a popular viewing option, and I think with this series we will see more sitcoms daring to push the envelope a bit.

    The miniseries, a seemingly lost art among networks, was as close of a model to what Netflix is doing now as we’ve seen by the major broadcast networks. Don’t count the networks out here, as they have shown countless times, when money is to be made, they’re wiling to experiment — even at the expense of their own words (see Leno/Conan debacle) for the chance to make a buck.

  • Here’s one of my most favorite economists writing a little bit a out how he sees this affecting the market.

    http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2013/02/will-marathon-viewing-become-the-tv-norm.html

  • I think it does and will work. It really all depend on the individual viewer, for one who says it has to be “binge viewing” Most people always don’t have the time or the patience to sit on their couches for 13+ hours to watch an entire series of television episode by episode. No doubt that ‘House of Cards’ is fantastic and addicting smart and suspenseful drama but speaking for myself I’ve only watched one or two episode in one sitting since it’s release and I’m only on episode 5. Plus I’ve gone back to re-watch the previous episodes a second or even third time because a one of the best things about a show like ‘House of Cards’ is that you get more out of it with repeat viewings because of the nuances of the previous episode informs the next.

    The beauty of Netflix is you can watch a show or movie pretty much anyway you want according to your viewing habits whether you want to binge or watch a little at a time. And it’s cheap! It’s not like other cable channel’s On Demand services where you have to pay expensive subscription costs, and wait a full day or sometimes longer until the episode becomes available On Demand, only to have the episode available for viewing for a week and previous seasons unavailable for viewing. Say for example you want to catch up on Mad Men because you’ve been hearing all about it from a friend. You got cable but only 3 episodes from Season 5 is only available on AMC ON Demand but the series up to the current episodes are available on Netflix. You can watch and catch up at your own pace and not have to worry about commercials because some On Demand still have commercials. Plus one of the best things about Netflix is the suggested viewings. If you like House of Cards well let me suggest ‘The West Wing’ you like Mad Men let me tell you about ‘Breaking Bad’.

    HBO should really take note as well and offer a stand alone HBOGO service. It’s one of the most pirated networks, Game of Thrones being the most pirated show. Hell why subscribe to cable for On Demand when you already have a fast internet connection and you have to wait a day for the episode to come on demand anyway? It takes longer to wait for the show you want to watch to get released On Demand than it takes for it to be posted to The Pirate In The Bay and to download it. Not that I would know anything about that.

    Netflix has had a bumpy road but this looks like it’s going to be a big year for the company. I don’t think they should be counted out so quickly.

  • Two first Fincher’s eps are fine, rest is your generic tryhard political TV drama. Not like it’s worst of all, mind you.

  • This is by far the best series i’ve seen in awhile. I wish i could support it more.

  • I don’t think breaking the fourth wall is even an issue anymore. The office and all those other shows really made it a normal experience that viewers will accept that break fairly easily if its implemented properly.

  • I haven’t seen it–but friends on Facebook seem enthusiastic. The trailer makes me think of Shakespeare’s history plays, where the intrigue and evil is really cranked up, and “asides” or soliloquies quite often break the fourth wall.

  • DIYFilmSchool.net on 02.5.13 @ 9:38AM

    I haven’t seen the show. The prospect of a global audience is interesting, though the amount of research and planning by a filmmaker or content creator would have to be significant to compete with Netflix’s Big Data gathering. In other words, shows would benefit from the knock-off mentality of creating things similar to what Netflix releases in-house, which means filmmakers would need to keep up with releases but also step it up to provide similar content both in quality and scope.

  • Having all 13 episodes available from day one should accommodate more people. It eliminates the missed episode. There’s nothing that says you have to, will want to or be able to watch them all in one 13 hour block. Maybe you watch a few hours at a time or one a day for 13 days. If you like waiting a week between episodes, then wait. If you can’t, it’s more of a self control issue than a programming one.

  • It’s amazing but not, really. I wish it where more like TV. Give me an episode to look forward too, I don’t want them all at once, I’ll blaze through them and then its back to watching regular cable. If one were released every week I would have something to look forward to, something to anticipate and plan for. I could guess about what will happen next or why did that just happen in the story. I am ranting now but really. Nextflix should be more like TV in that respect. If they want to compete with HBO then they need to learn how to keep people coming back. Also, could it kill them to make a better UI experience – COME ON!

  • I agree with a lot that has been said already. Yes Fincher’s episodes aren’t the strongest, but they are extremely well done none the least. I am quite a fan of them breaking the 4th wall, but I also must iterate that it works in this circumstance due to the nature of the show and the excellent performance coming from Kevin Spacey. The text message overlays I find to be a welcome addition as well. Overall i’m quite excited about this new model of content creation / delivery. House of Cards is the only watchable web series out there in my opinion. Hopefully producers and investors take notes from this and the flood gates open to network quality web series abroad.

  • The trouble is… will Netflix or Fincher’s production company release this series on Blu-ray and 4k media to buy or keep it locked up on Netflix’s servers forever?

    HOC is shot and mastered at 4k with RED’s 4k workflow (just like Fincher’s GWTDT), but due to Netflix’s ultra high compression and lossy Dolby Digital audio, you only see and hear a sliver of the production value.

    I’d like to be able to see it with at least 1080p Blu-ray quality (higher bitrates) with lossless, 24 bit surround and true 10 bit, 4k some time soon. Watch this series streamed onto a large TV or projection screen and the image quality quickly falls apart and the audio is nothing special.

    There’s something to be said for the unprecedented freedom the filmmakers were given with this model of distribution (and Netflix’s wonderful “hands-off” approach to the talent), but they’re wasting the potential of using such expensive, big-screen-grade cinematographic tools on single digit quality video streams.

    Maybe they should release these once a week and have the episodes go longer… (maybe in the 55-60 minute range) I notice that commercial-free content is starting to clock in at about the same length as commercial fare. There’s room to flesh out the episodes more… didn’t they get the memo?

    I’d pay $10-$12 bucks a month for Netflix if the A/V quality of the streams were a lot higher and they kept releasing good, original content, and improved and expanded their other catalog offerings quite a bit.

    • I have a very good internet connection and the stream gets damn near bluray quality. I forget often that i’m watching a streaming video all the time. The only visual reminders I get that i’m watching a stream is some banding with light gradations. I can see House of Cards being transferred to bluray….. and then be sent out from their disc mail business. I guarantee you this type of show with this type of talent wouldn’t come from some bro with a 5D and have $100,000,000 to be a flagship show on Netflix. Just not going to happen.

      • Ha, this is interesting. I never even thought that Netflix would have to press its own dvds and Blu ray discs to then send out to their customers. It seems to be a waste of money with each passing year. There are fewer and fewer movies coming out every year worth watching more than once, let alone worth seeing a BR disc of.

        Netflix should sell HOC, but where would they sell it? Directly, or through Amazon.com? lol

  • I’m not sure Netflix can afford to pay that kind of money going forward but they had to this time around to prove a point. Overall, it’s a step in the right direction.

    People get hung up on the delivery mechanism. The Internet vs. Cable/Satellite (traditional TV) is not really the issue. The issue is viewing habits. Live broadcasts are still the domain of traditional TV because it is a technical issue there. The tech is not there for supporting a Super Bowl sized audience live streaming over the Internet. Maybe in the future, but it’s a ways off in the future. For everything else, it’s pretty clear people generally want to watch shows when and where they want to watch them. This doesn’t mean it makes financial sense for the networks or others (Netflix, Amazon, etc.) to pay for this content. The numbers may not add up, as shocking as that might seem to those who think they would LOVE ala carte TV and on-demand viewing of everything. The economics of these shows is built around certain models. Netflix is attempting to break some of those economics now. We’ll see if it works. I hope it does, at least to the point where Netflix finds a nice sweet spot.

    My biggest concern is for independent filmmaking in all of this. Nothing Netflix or Amazon or any other non-traditional, large distribution network is doing helps independents out. It would seem to but the reality is it’s often just as hard to get your professional films and series on these alternative networks as it is anywhere else. Distribution is still broken in many, many ways and I think a lot of that has to do with the numbers not adding up for even these new networks that are emerging.

    • I completely agree. The root of the problem is that the TV market demands are trending towards an impossible set of criteria:
      -high quality content, available in bulk on demand, with no commercials & cheap/free subsciption fees.
      But, the supply isn’t changing in the fundamental ways it would have to in order to accomodate these new demands. Ie:
      -Red/Alexa workflow isn’t drastically cheaper than film, (big)producers & (big)talent wages aren’t getting any cheaper, there is no suitable replacement for ad revenue yet (esp. on the big four broadcast network level), and releasing shows whole seasons at a time eliminate a network’s option to pull the plug on production if ratings sour.

      I am all for democratization of media, especially TV, but you cannot expect an industry notorious for not taking risks, whose revenue model has remained largely unchanged since it’s inception, to suddenly abandon all of their financial safety nets just because consumers are starting to realize they prefer to be spoiled.

      …That’s like a crack heads demanding their crack dealer sell to them in bulk for less money because they just figured out how Costco works and like that model better.

  • I think Netflix is worried and threatened by studios who set up exclusive distribution deals with competitors, or keep content for their own distro/streaming website… so Netflix is making their own content. The only way they can guarantee exclusive content is to make it themselves.

  • I like “binge viewing” from time to time. Haven’t seen House of Cards yet, but I have binge viewed whole seasons of series like Game of Thrones, Six Feet Under or 24. When I have nothing to do on a sunday, why not watch a good series for 10 hours in a row?
    People have done it with books for decades, I mean “binge reading” – why not with tv shows?

    An old fashioned movie to me is something like a short story, while a good tv show is like a book. Some books have been published in newspapers in the past, chapter by chapter week after week – you can do that, but people like it better if they can read or watch as much of it as they have time, so of course people prefer having complete seasons of tv shows ready to watch instead of waiting a week for a new episode.

  • I saw only one vague reference to the attribute of releasing-a-full-season-at-once that I consider priceless which is FLEXIBILITY!! Being locked into a rigid, weekly viewing schedule, simply SUCKS! Work schedules, children, social events or having a big, unexpected block of time on our hands happens to viewers. But TV land never takes that into consideration. That’s a big reason why so many people, like me, will wait for an entire series to be released on DVD or become available for online viewing. My Netflix subscription is worth every penny for that option.

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