Netflix, an Internet streaming and DVD rental company, dropped its first-ever original TV series, “House of Cards,” in its full season online on January 31st.
The series is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed U.K. series of the same name, and it has successfully transformed the plot to fit the U.S. political landscape. Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a ruthless congressman who thought his time had come when the newly elected President was supposed to nominate him as the Secretary of State to return his favor, only finds his expectation crushed. He then works with his loyal wife Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a non-profit organization and his Chief of Staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) to carefully and mercilessly carry out his plans of revenge. Together, they manipulate the ambitious young journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and alcoholic congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) to reclaim his political ambitions.
Besides these big name stars in both leading and supporting roles, the series is directed by David Fincher, who also has a record of numerous critically acclaimed films such as Fight Club and The Social Network.
The $100 million gamble on original programming has received very positive ratings, with Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, claiming it to be the most-watched show on the site although he wouldn’t disclose the actual number. The success of Netflix in launching its original programs rattled TV networks, which are worried that TV is soon to become a past page.
Has Netflix become a game changer? I wouldn’t say yes yet. Netflix is changing itself from a streaming platform to a content producer, so in that sense, it definitely has changed its own definition. However, House of Cards is still a TV series, and it completely borrowed from the format cable and broadcasters have established. The only breakthrough Netflix made from TV, aside from having commercial breaks, is that it let people “binge” by dropping the 13 episodes of the season all at once. Binging is definitely a behavior Internet viewers are obsessed with, and because Netflix’s goal is not to draw advertisers but to increase its online subscription, pleasing viewers seems to be its top priority. Fincher and Spacey backed the idea too.
“The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead. A stake has been drive through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth has been stuffed with garlic,” Fincher once said. “The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe they will do it.” Spacey also called the model a “new perspective.”
However, what comes quickly goes quickly too. Without “hooking” viewers with an episode per week, how long the series will occupy viewers after they have binged it on a weekend remains a question. When Netflix satisfies viewers by giving them what they want immediately, anticipation will not build up as it does with traditional TV. When I binged the series on a 2 to 3 episodes per day average, it definitely had me hooked but not itching because I could simply satisfy myself within a click. Also, in the era of social networking, if the show fails to engage people in talking about it constantly on Twitter or Facebook, then it has denied itself the best approach for publicity.
Network Insights has provided statistics of social activities the show has spurred, which indicates that people talked a lot about House of Cards when it premiered initially and slowed down since then, but it did increase slightly over the weekend when most people binge.
The only way Netflix could keep the attraction is to speed up and release the second season as soon as possible and create more original programs, which it already started. It plans to premiere its original horror series “Hemlock Grove” in April and picked up a new season of “Arrested Development” after Fox canceled on it, according to a report by USA Today.
But will the profits subscription brings make money or even cover the cost of producing this original content similar to what big TV networks are doing? How many more subscriptions can it get until it reaches saturation? The temporary success of House of Cards won’t insure the future of Netflix in this fast-changing time.
A new friend I met last week at a dinner party couldn’t help telling me about “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries,” a modernized “Pride and Prejudice” two students put up on YouTube. Although every episode lasts only a few minutes, it has kept running for more than 80 episodes. People are obsessed with it and talking about it online constantly. The actors even created Twitter accounts in the name of the characters’ like Jane and Lydia and tweet live between each other.
Though I don’t expect Netflix to be producing something like this, it shows that there’s boundary in the Internet era. Netflix has already showed its willingness to be the pioneer, to be defined and redefined. It has to dig deeper and look further. How it can utilize all aspects of the Internet instead of bowing to its big brother TV will be a determining factor in whether Netflix will break ground and hasten the coming of a new era.