EMBLIDGE INSIGHT: “House of Cards” and How Netflix is Changing the Television Model

By Wesley Emblidge

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A few weeks ago I started watching Aaron Sorkin’s old TV show “The West Wing,” and loved it. I cycled through the first season within a week, and went straight into the next season, not having to wait around for months to find out what happened. Meanwhile, I’m desperately waiting for my favorite show “Breaking Bad” to come back for it’s final season later this year. I’m there in front of my TV every Sunday night, and the moment it ends I start counting down the seconds until next Sunday.

So there are really two ways to watch a show: as it comes out, one episode per week, until the show finally ends. Or you binge-watch the entire season, or even series, when it comes out on DVD…or when it comes to Netflix Instant. This brings me to my point, and that point is Netflix’s new series “House of Cards.”

Netflix has been planning to get into producing their own content like HBO or Showtime for a while now, and actually started a while back with their show “Lilyhammer.” Now I don’t know a single person who watched that, but I know too many to name that sat in front of their computers on Friday, February 1 to start watching their second series, “House of Cards.” Netflix pulled out all the stops for this show, managing to outbid their competitors for the rights to the Kevin Spacey-starring political thriller, created and directed by Oscar-nominated people. They spent a reported $100 million on just that first season, and then made a move that was surprising: they released the entire season at once.

Many people sat down of February 1 not only to watch just the pilot, but watch all 13 hour-long episodes back-to-back in one long binge viewing, just like many do with “Homeland” or “Boardwalk Empire.” I myself took my time with it, spreading it out over Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Thing of it is, I’ve finished watching. The first season is done. And in a week or so, most people won’t be talking much about the show, until it returns for its second season at a far-off date. I’ve written my review of the season, it’ll go up and that’ll be it. “Mad Men” has the benefit of everyone watching it each night and then rushing off to Twitter or Facebook to scream about how great the latest episode was, which gets the show buzz, expose, free advertising essentially. “House of Cards” gets none of that.

In addition, it’s a questionable move for Netflix as a company. Their entire subscription model is based on you paying $7.99 a month for their services, so to watch the whole season of “House of Cards” that’s all you need to pay. Meanwhile, want to watch “Games of Thrones”? The second season is going to cost you about $50 on Blu Ray, or if you can’t afford that still about $30 to get digitally. Of course, that is to own, and “House of Cards” will surely come out on DVD and Blu Ray as well, but there are plenty of people who will just use the iTunes store rentals to watch their shows: $0.99 per episode. “Homeland” viewers need to pay $13 to watch a season, while “House of Cards” viewers only have to pay $8.

So to put it simply: this is a big risk. Netflix’s relevancy will, to an extent, live or die with the success of this show. If “House of Cards” is a failure then Netflix will probably stop making original programming: or at least stop making it with so much free reign.

One of the things that makes “House of Cards” great is the creative freedom. For starters, you can go all out with your profanity and nudity; this isn’t NBC, this is the internet. All the sex, drugs and profanity of Washington is on full display here, as well as some things that not even HBO offers. Episodes can be 40 minutes, or they can be an hour long, it doesn’t matter since it’s all online. There are no commercial breaks to account for, no show that has to air right after. If need be they could put out episodes that only run 20 minutes or episodes the length of a feature film.

This plan gives the viewers freedom as well. You can watch the show at whatever paced you’d like, if you want to binge watch it you can, or you can pace yourself until the next season starts. Like the Geico Gecko says in that really annoying commercial, “people like options.” It’s an added bonus that the show is really good and entertaining, so people have these options for something they’ll actually enjoy.

It’ll be interesting to see where we are in just a few years. Other sites like Hulu or Yahoo! have made their own shows that try to re-define what we consider a “web series” to be, but Netflix is the first site that’s levelling the playing field with TV networks. “House of Cards” is a great show, and I love the options the format gives me and the creators. It’s yet to be seen if this pays off for Netflix monetarily, but at least even if it doesn’t they’ve forever changed what can be done creatively on the internet.