Film and TV

What Netflix Is Doing with House of Cards is Not Revolutionary, But it Is Evolutionary

Netflix added a new television series called House of Cards to its streaming library last Friday. Starring Kevin Spacey and developed by Hollywood heavyweight David Fincher (Fight Club, Social Network), the series is a political thriller based on a 1990 BBC series of the same name. But what makes this series different from any others on Netflix is that Fincher and Spacey's House of Cards isn't from another network. It's a Netflix original.

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This isn't a first for the Silicon Valley heavyweight. Its first series, Lillyhammer, debuted last February with eight episodes. It stars Steven Van Zandt (The Sopranos) as a New York gangster starting over in Norway. The production brought Netflix together with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) and SevenOne International, a German distributor. Now, a year later, we have House of Cards. And next, of course, is the return of Arrested Development.

On the day of House of Card's debut, the Huffington Post published an article hailing Netflix as "the Future of TV." Together with Nancy Hass' Reed Hastings profile for GQ, Netflix has basically been dubbed the next HBO. Critics suggest that House of Cards is something revolutionary, with the potential to change television as we know it.

In one sense, they're right. Netflix's model is different from that of a normal television network. They order full seasons, not pilots. And they don't draw out the suspense by releasing one episode a week. You can have it all, right now. But I'm not sure I'd call what Netflix is doing revolutionary.

Netflix was once credited with the invention of binge-watching. But that goes back to VHS, and then to DVD and DVR, says Chuck Tryon, professor of Film and Media Studies at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. Netflix has only made bing-watching easier. Similarly, what we're seeing with House of Cards is more like a shift than a true game-change.

"VCRs made it possible to watch shows asynchronously," Tryon says. "Online storage has simply made that process more accessible than in the past. Netflix producing original content is somewhat new to them, but obviously not to the web itself."

Still, the decision to release all 13 episodes at once does break with tradition. Tryon notes that even most early web series released episodes one at a time because of scarcity models. Like networks, they needed a way to bring viewers back each week.

But despite its relative youth as a company, Netflix has already become an ingrained institution. Back in September 2012, USA Today reported that households receiving traditional television service has been on the decline for a while and is continuing. Netflix is among the reasons. For people who've abandoned an expensive cable bill for the much cheaper Netflix subscription, the scarcity model is less important because there's so little competition.

Given that, Netflix's move may not be so dramatic after all. What may be more significant is its decision to commit to a full season over pilots. That's not a bold move if you're talking about an established series, but it is when you're talking about a brand new idea. A lot of series don't get to finish their first seasons.

Often that's no great tragedy, but other times -- as with the critically popular but low-rated Freaks and Geeks -- it definitely is. Netflix does what DVD, which did so much to make binge-watching mainstream, couldn't: It allows artists to have at least one guaranteed season to lay out their vision.

All of this plays into Netflix's goal to be an artist-centric place -- indeed, the next HBO -- and it reflects a steady, evolutionary change more than a dramatic shift. Tryon notes that, at HBO and other cable networks, "shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Weeds were allowed to build an audience over time, without concern about advertiser revenue."

"HBO didn't care that much when you watched The Sopranos," Tryon says, "as long as you paid your HBO bill every month."

It would appear the same is now true with the House of Cards. A second season will begin filming later this year.

Andrew Welch is a graduate student at the University of North Texas. He blogs about movies at Adventures in Cinema.

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Andrew Welch
Contact: Andrew Welch