Note: This story has been corrected. See the bottom of the story for the correction.
There’s been a media blitz over Netflix’s “House Of Cards,” and how revolutionary it is.
“House Of Cards“ is the most interesting show of the year. But it’s not revolutionary.
Let’s break it down.
1. Exploding Commercial TV?
“House of Cards“ and Netflix have not exploded the restrictions of commercial TV (show length, plot resolution) that endured for decades.
“The Sopranos“ and HBO did that.
Pre-“Sopranos,” a show’s hero leaving his daughter’s college interview — to murder a long-lost colleague — was unthinkable. In retrospect, it kicked off the golden age of television.
2. Redefining TV Narrative?
“House of Cards” does not smash the self-contained, enter-anywhere model that reigned from the beginning of TV. “24” and “Lost“ did that. Those shows were less erudite than “House of Cards” — but their DVR-era serialism was a major breakthrough. Before then, you could enter a TV series at any episode. Afterwards, you had to watch from the beginning.
3. Big Data-Driven TV?
A recent New York Times piece claims that Netflix redefined TV by using viewer analytics — certainly a key to the future of media — to ensure that “HOC” would be a hit. Really? Does it really require Netflix’s superb and proprietary data-mining environment to know that David Fincher + Kevin Spacey + a U.K. hit remake + $100 million = media buzz?*
No. Of course not. There was no secret sauce required to know people would watch. And assessing whether it’s worth $100 million would require reviewing viewership data — which Netflix keeps private.
The Times can do better.
4. Invention of Binge Viewing?
When I dispute the inclusion of “House of Cards” in the “Sopranos”/“Lost“ pantheon, I get one primary counterargument: binge-watching. Due to the way Netflix works, “House of Cards” is the first show designed to be consumed as fast as viewers can handle it. In fact, the Netflix UI gives the viewer a mere 15 seconds from the end of an episode before it launches the following one — which, frankly, is awesome.
But it’s not new.
In fact, the real giant of Netflix binge-watching comes from a cable network. It’s a show with the least likely high concept in history: “high school chemistry teacher gets cancer, cooks meth.”
AMC’s towering creative achievement, “Breaking Bad,“ has spawned year after year of true breakthrough viewing patterns — see here and here, for example. From Gus Fring to Hank on the toilet, “Breaking Bad” (and its label mate “Mad Men”) have completely remade the narrative arc of what TV means in our lives and times.
5. Netflix Kills Cable TV?
The news blitz is not about “House of Cards” anyway, not really. It’s the return of an existing presumption: that we are witnessing Netflix’s potential to conquer cable.
That will not happen. As I’ve written before, this is a sexy thought — but it’s not based in reality. In the economics of media, Netflix is a buyer — that is, it relies on the major studios to license its content. Without big studios, Netflix’s offering to the public dries up — fast.
And the dirty public secret is that — far and away — the major revenue drivers in Hollywood are cable channels. These are the networks that some hope Netflix can defeat. But that’s the modern-day equivalent of Orboros, the snake that eats its own tail: No studio is going to spite its master to benefit Netflix.
To underline this, see the graphic above. I use it in my USC course — it lists the content controlled by three parties: 1. Comcast/NBCU; 2. the three owners of Hulu; and 3. Netflix. Content is a seller’s game.
The difficulties of the Netflix-as-cable-killer argument were underscored when CEO Reed Hastings announced last month that “Arrested Development” would run for only one season.
The truth: Netflix is a great service playing a difficult game.
6. Making a Great Show is Enough. Really.
The reasons “HOC“ is great are the conventional ones: stellar performances, exemplary writing and directorial prowess. The talents of Spacey, Robin Wright, Fincher & Co. exhibit an extraordinary degree of nuance, intelligence and grace. In other words, it’s an outstanding TV show, not a new kind of TV show. It’s a great effort from a new “network” that continues to innovate, and to contribute disproportionate value — much more value, dollar for dollar, than satellite or cable.
“House Of Cards“ is the show of the year. It’s a great contribution to the television landscape — not a game-changing one.
Mediatwits #67: Bingeing on ‘House of Cards’; Print Mags Hit by Postal Service hosted by Mark Glaser
CORRECTION: This story initially said that Netflix had paid $20 million to develop “House of Cards” while the correct number is $100 million. The story has been corrected to reflect that.
Seth Shapiro is a leading strategist, speaker and advisor in digital media. A two-time Emmy® award winner, his work includes projects in games, TV, online and mobile, for companies companies including Disney, Comcast, McCann, Intel, Time Warner, Universal, Showtime, Verizon, Sun Microsystems, Goldman Sachs, Tim Kring, Betfair UK and a range of startups. He is Principal of New Amsterdam Media, Adjunct Professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and Research Fellow at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. As Head of Production at DirecTV’s Advanced Products and Services group, Seth oversaw the launch of over 20 services, including NFL Sunday Ticket Digital and TiVo from DirecTV, the world’s first major DVR platform.