Several weeks ago Netflix released 13 episodes of their powerhouse original series House of Cards, all in one day. It was a bold move for the streaming service, but with big Hollywood names like David Fincher attached to direct and Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright to star, they were pretty sure they would have a hit on their hands. However, the biggest controversy was that Netflix has stated that they will not release any ratings for the show. They claim they are a subscription-based service and immediate numbers are not what are important. Rather, it is more important that anytime in the next 6 months, their viewers sit down and binge watch all episodes. However, while not giving specific ratings, Netflix has declared that House of Cards is now the most streamed piece of content in the United States and 40 other countries. Sounds like a success to me.
With that success comes the question of how this will change the television business in the future? In an article back in October, I explored they ways in which network and cable television have been rapidly changing recently. With the addition of cable and hundreds of alternate networks, broadcast television is having trouble keeping up and the ratings for their shows are dwindling before our eyes. The Walking Dead is poised to possibly win 2013 as the highest rated scripted drama on television…yet it’s not a network show. That is a huge departure from when cable shows were barely in the game and seen as a smaller business model. Now, I can't help but wonder if cable television will soon be marginalized as well. After beginning my House of Cards marathon, I immediately became very excited because I suspect I was actually watching television history happen before my eyes. In many ways this felt like the tipping point of when a digital streaming content model will actually be able to exist. It might not happen right away, but this will allow other companies (such as Amazon Prime who just announced they are entering the game) feel confident that they can successfully produce original content and audiences will be there to watch. Now, the question remains will they be able to monetize extremely expensive shows such as House of Cards and not only make them successful with the audience, but help make money for the streaming service. As I believe there is some time before that question will be answered, I am not going to focus on that at the moment and instead would like to discuss how House of Cards actually is a breakthrough series and its type of content.
Without having to exist within the established television model, House of Cards creators were able to really break free from the confines of the traditional ways of producing content. First of all, by having more of a focus on the streaming, binge viewer they didn't have to write or tell stories in the same manner. The focus was not on building a cliffhanger that makes a viewer wants to tune in and come back every week, but rather a model that would make a person want to immediately watch the next episode. I found that especially true in the first three episodes of the season, which ironically were he ones directed by Fincher. The experience was likened to watching an incredibly long movie that had built in stop breaks at the end of the hour. When reaching the end of an episode, there was enough resolution that you could stop and feel satisfied with the hour of television your had just watched. Alternately, you could turn on another episode and feel as if it was simply a continuum of what you were just watching. It was a fascinating experience and one I thoroughly enjoyed…at first. After several episodes I began to feel that everything was dragging a bit and I was ready for a little conflict resolution. I'm not sure if that was an issue in the writing of the series that became lost and uneven in the middle, or if it was the new way they were attempting to tell this story. It also could be the problem that while you are expecting to watch the series more like a film than a series, the fact that series episodes have different writers and directors was really felt. However, in the last five episodes, the excitement returned, as did the desire to binge watch. In fact, I was late to a dinner party because I couldn't bear to not finish the season in that one sitting as it would have felt like turning off a film in the middle.
Similarly, because House of Cards did not have to adhere to a specific airtime or allow room for commercials, they didn't have to write episodes in the same manner as a traditional series or be edited to fit within a set amount of time. Hour long dramas that are air on television are around 46 minutes long and must be edited to fit within that time. Many times some of the best jokes or most dramatic moments are cut and edited in a series, simply because they don't fit. With the streaming model, shows don't have to worry about this and can skew several minutes either way depending on what is creatively best for the episode. That is a rare freedom that is not afforded to most series.
For this reason, I think this new format will also be very important, as it will attract high-level talent, actors, writers and directors who will want to explore new ways to tell stories. Since David Fincher and Kevin Spacey were attached to this huge new venture, it will be easy for other big name actors and directors to attach themselves to series with streaming content models. John Goodman has already signed on to star in Alpha House from Amazon and they are also developing the hit movie Zombieland into a series. They also don't have to listen to critiques or notes from network television executives or "suits", and I have a feeling that might be one of the biggest draws for many frustrated creatives. I don't think it will be long before the next big name director is attached to produce and direct parts of a new series and personally I am very excited to see who it will be. Netflix already has their next big play lined up with the return of Arrested Development in May and I have a feeling this will only solidify this new content model and way of telling stories as it has been anticipated by very rabid and cult-like fans for years.
Now, while looking at all of this the next question might be, "Well, is House of Cards good?" Whether the series is successful and great as a whole is something I still have yet to figure out. It is a fascinating show to watch and I couldn't turn my eyes away which is a rare thing for a series and at the very least indicates it is entertaining. I don't know that I ever found the passion for it that I have for say Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead or even Mad Men. Don’t get me wrong, I think the series is better than most out there (especially after seeing the new crop of shows that aired this season) and if Kevin Spacey isn't a shoe in for an Emmy, I will lose more faith in their system than I already have. I am sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for next season, which is always a good sign. It almost felt like looking at a beautifully crafted piece of art that you know is good and you really like looking at it, but it just didn't hit you in the heart and become one of your favorites.
However, I think no matter if you enjoy it, love it, or hate it, it is a very important series to watch. Whether it is the beginning of the digital streaming revolution or simply the tipping point that leads to the next business model, it is a series that will be talked about for months and years to come. For that reason, I implore you to watch and get excited that things are changing and moving into a direction that will actually appeal to new audiences and create content in a creative, sophisticated manner. More than anything it is an indication of where things are going and I hope at the very least you can be interested in that fact. I know that I am.