independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

James Dempsey: Netflix tries to change TV with first ‘event’ shifting attention from the goggle box to the Google box

HOUSE of Cards opens with the sound of a car crashing, but the driving forces behind this $100m Netflix vehicle really need it to be a smash. This remake of a 1990s’ BBC political-thriller marks Netflix’s first entirely original production, and with House of Cards the on-demand streaming TV site is hoping to trump the cable studios at their own game.

With the first two episodes directed by David Fincher, and starring Kevin Spacey as a shady politician with a thick southern drawl, House of Cards is perhaps the first big television event of 2013. Having ordered 26 episodes across a two-season agreement, however, this is the first event ever designed to turn your attention away from the goggle box, and redirect it towards the Google one.



With an audience of 25 million subscribers in the US, not to mention the one million that have signed up since the service launched in the UK and Ireland a year ago, Netflix has identified original programming as a key feature to its development. Out of the $6b licencsng budget for the next three years, Ted Sarantos, the company’s Chief Content Officer has designated $300m for its own shows, with the goal of launching five shows each year.



Last year saw a co-production with the Norwegian national broadcaster, NRK, on Lilyhammer, a comedy-drama about a mobster who relocates to rural Norway. It aired on BBC4 here, and a second season is in production. In April, cult sitcom Arrested Development finally gets its fourth season, five years after it was cancelled by Fox. Then there’s Hemlock Grove, from horror director Eli Roth, and Orange is the New Black, a women’s prison comedy, including an episode directed by Jodie Foster.



But House of Cards is Netflix’s gamble; a big-name cast, big-name directors, and an ambitious and highly publicised launch. They need this to be a success, to entertain current subscribers, but to also generate enough buzz to bring in new ones. But the network feels they have an ace up their sleeve here, and have decided to release the entire show, all 13 episodes, on the same day.



By releasing all of the episodes right from the get-go, laying their cards on the table so to speak, Netflix and its creative team have thrown down the gauntlet to traditional notions of television entertainment. In a single day, by launching the complete first season of an un-cancellable series simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, it is very possible that we’ve seen the beginning of the end of the cultural impact of serialised scheduling. In effect, is the well starting to run dry on the water-cooler moment?



In a recent GQ interview, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings addressed head on his thoughts on the drip-feed culture of television, describing how he believes viewers are firmly ready to break out of the prime-time prison. When consumers finally “… give up on the artificiality of managed dissatisfaction – that is having to wait to watch the things we want to watch – they’ll never miss it.”



There may well be method to this madness; when Netflix posted the second season of the hit AMC show The Walking Dead online in October of last year, 200,000 viewers watched all 13 episodes in 24 hours. Zombies watching zombies, perhaps, but who amongst us can honestly admit to never having gorged their eyes on a few discs of a boxset in a single sitting?



That is not to say that there are no downsides to this sort of floodgate release. For critics writing for websites traditionally running show-by-show reviews, House of Cards is a nightmare. But more dangerously for the creative forces behind the show, it can’t adapt to the ebb and flow of the viewers’ reception.

House of Cards has arrived as a complete package, with no possibility for a mid-season correction should the public fail to take it to their hearts. Hate one of the characters vehemently? Tough luck, you’re stuck with them – and so are the producers.





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