Reaction: Netflix and House of Cards

I’m sure that most of the major networks would disagree with me, but as a consumer I think Netflix is the best thing to happen to TV. Since getting a subscription a few months back, I’ve watched more TV than I have in the past three years, with live streaming supplanting video games as the number one use of my Xbox 360 and an estimated ten hours of my life sacrificed to watching the red loading screen.

It’s because of Netflix that I started watching Archer before it ever made it onto DVD, lost three-hour stretches of time every day a new Sons of Anarchy disc arrived, discovered Better Off Ted from the wastebasket that ABC let it fall into and fell head over heels in love with Parks and Recreation‘s second season after dismissing it early as a copy of a show I’m not fond of. My queues, DVD and instant, are swollen with shows I haven’t seen or still have a glut of episodes to catch up on*: Party Down. Band of Brothers. Chuck (season 3+). The IT Crowd. Twin Peaks. Rome. Carnivale. Dollhouse (season 2). Doctor Who. Veronica Mars. The Pillars of the Earth. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

*Do feel free to let me know if any of these should be moved to the top of the queue or dropped entirely – I mostly picked them based on what’s available and what friends have selected for me.

And now Netflix is making an even more brazen grasp for my attention – and a larger share of television’s profits – by joining network and cable stations as a provider of original content. Last week it was announced that Netflix successfully outbid both HBO and AMC for the political drama series House of Cards, not only committing to the project but demonstrating a remarkable faith in it by ordering two full 13-episode seasons. Based on a four-part BBC serial from 1990 – which was itself based on a political thriller novel by Michael Dobbs – the series will be directed by David Fincher and star Kevin Spacey, and is targeted to air in the fall of 2012.

Obviously it’s too early to have any comments on the show itself, but Netflix clearly has enough confidence in its quality to order two seasons’ worth and it’s certainly got the right pedigree starting out. Spacey’s a terrific actor in most any role he’s given, and given the success film directors have had when branching out into TV (Martin Scorsese in Boardwalk Empire, Frank Darabont in The Walking Dead, Michael Mann in the upcoming Luck) I don’t see any reason Fincher can’t construct at least a fascinating pilot. I’m not thrilled about another remake of a British series (because America’s creative well has apparently run so dry that we can’t get enough of those) but I haven’t seen or read the original so maybe it’ll turn out to be a concept that has enough content worth exploring in a new format.

But that’s a discussion for at least next year. The bigger point raised by this of course is the fact that with its first original Netflix has now gone from simply re-airing the content of networks and cable channels to feasibly competing with them for the bigger pool of customers. (Showtime apparently feels threatened enough by this move that it’s pulling its original series from Netflix instant, which means I’ll probably never get around to watching Dexter past the third season. Starz hasn’t gone that far yet, but has announced that episodes of its new series Camelot won’t appear on streaming for at least 60 days after their original air date.)

Several television writers have certainly taken notice. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix said it will be an interesting step to see how shows can be made and successfully marketed outside traditional means, citing how few people watched Party Down on Starz and were often surprised to find that Netflix wasn’t producing the show in the first place:

That’s an extreme case involving a microscopically-rated show, but the ubiquity of Netflix Instant – particularly for people who have Blu-Ray players, video game consoles or other devices that allow them to stream movies and TV shows directly to their TV sets – is becoming a real threat to the traditional TV business. Why bother spending a lot of money for a cable subscription – and/or why bother trying to watch any show live, with commercials – when there are thousands upon thousands of hours of fine shows available to stream on whatever schedule is most convenient for you?

Mo Ryan of AOL’s Stay Tuned blog similarly saw the decision as another step in the growth of leading television watchers to cut their cable subscriptions entirely, and pointed out that shows becoming solely available through Netflix is another step in the “Enough Stuff” mentality:

We’re used to media pundits saying that we live in an on-demand culture — but I don’t think we’re that demanding, not when presented with a lot of options. What Netflix has shown us is that we’re turning into a “what’s on” culture. I’ll take exactly what I want when I can get it, but otherwise, I don’t mind grazing. There’s Enough Stuff on Netflix and Hulu and on my DVR that I’ll be able to find something worth my time. That something may not be a show that has aired on the tube in the past 10 years.

I think that kind of thinking has media executives terrified. They’re used to people coming to them for a particular show within a particular time frame. Not only are we time-shifting when we consume television, we’re priority shifting in terms of what’s available. Not everything people want is available every minute of every day, but Enough Stuff is, and we’re often fine with that.

And for TIME, James Poniewozik theorized that the move could fundamentally change the way television is produced, using its brand awareness to reduce the idea of consumers matching their favorite shows with a network:

Right now, if you’re selling a show, you have to be very conscious of its fit with a particular network’s brand: is it an NBC show? CBS? Showtime? TNT? You’ll recall that when Lone Star flamed out, there was a lot of talk that it was a bad fit for network TV, but it was hard to figure what cable network it would have been good for: it probably was not aggro enough for FX, it seemed a little too conventional for HBO, etc.

Once entities like Netflix can acquire programs—without having to be “programmers”—that dynamic could melt away. You no longer have to fit a show to a channel, you just have to fit it to an audience.

My take on this? Well, as a Netflix subscriber already, I’m pleased at the thought of having more and more content available in the queue, especially if they continue to exercise good taste going forward in selecting their material. And as someone who’s still seething over the cancellations of Better Off Ted and Rubicon, and gets nervous for their cult comedies every time the end of a season looms, the thought that this could breed a new type of television development that’s less dependent on an outdated rating system is very exciting to me.

That being said, I don’t think one show coming on Netflix is going to be enough to convince people to abandon their cable subscriptions entirely, if they haven’t already. The majority of things I’ve added to my queue have been added because they just happen to be there and I’m curious about them – simply offering a show on Netflix exclusively doesn’t quite sell the service to me, because it’s sandwiched between so many pieces of other content with better name recognition. Also, the fact that Showtime has already decided not to keep their content on streaming could be the first of many departures, and without a strong base of preexisting content Netflix would lose a lot of the reasons I have for keeping the service in the first place.

Personally, in my perfect world we’d see Netflix moving into more of a partnership with the networks, not only airing their previously aired content but by taking up the DirecTV approach of rescuing shows like Friday Night Lights and Damages that were no longer sustainable by their founding network. In an era where shows are kneecapped by poor ratings early or regularly canceled before their last episodes even have the chance to air, and fans have to seek them out through various means (see the last two episodes of Better Off Ted for example), I like the idea of a provider like Netflix swooping in and cutting a deal with studios to keep producing the show, using the existing framework of sets and actors to draw in more subscribers.

Again, it’s obviously too early to see where this is going, and whether or not Netflix has the strategy in place to make itself the next HBO. That said, if you want to watch Party Down without owning the DVDs, it might be good to do it while you still can.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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One Response to Reaction: Netflix and House of Cards

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