By now, I’m sure many of you have seen at least one episode of House of Cards if you are a Netflix subscriber. A recent survey of Netflix users showed that roughly 1 in 10 subscribers have watched at least one episode of the series, with those viewers having watched an average of 6 episodes (!). Critics seem to love it and most of the buzz online (and with my friends) has been very positive.
For those in the television business though, skepticism is still high. Is releasing a season all at once a good thing? If so, how can you measure its success if you don’t have ratings? How do you know if you have turned a profit and deem the investment to be worthy? Well, I thought I would address some of that skepticism.
I will admit, the only reason I tuned in to House of Cards was due to the fact that David Fincher directed the first two episodes. I am a big fan of his and have mostly liked everything he has done thus far; I really love his dark directing style and keen attention to detail. So when I tuned in to see how my boy Fincher has been doing lately, I was immediately intrigued by the expert political manipulator played by Kevin Spacey and the ice cold queen of a wife played by Robin Wright. The first episode laid out the players, set up the tone and style, and launched the sling shot that will carry forward the rest of the series.
When that premiere episode came to an end, I sat there and thought about what I had just watched. I was impressed, thinking to myself about how it really displayed the tone and quality of an HBO show. I don’t have cable so receiving a brand new HBO-quality series included in my Netflix subscription is a hell of a perk. But what really hit home for me was sitting there and seeing Episode 2 waiting for me when I was done. And Episode 3. And Episode 4.
Suddenly, I was filled with a strange excitement. A brand new dark drama that I wouldn’t have to wait week by week to see. No more Sunday night trips to my friend’s house to watch Boardwalk Empire. No more blocking out time every week. It’s all right here, whenever I need it, the entire season. Strictly speaking as a customer, that was a powerful feeling.
But most criticism seems to come from the business perspective. What if Netflix subscribers enroll in order to see House of Cards, watch the entire season, and then cancel the next day? The thinking here is that HBO keeps its subscribers by stretching out their shows over the course of months, which may be a valid point. Another criticism seems to be over the “water cooler” argument. Releasing episodes week by week keeps the social conversation going. Fans like to speculate on what will happen next week, what predictions they foster. They like to check up on episode recaps through their favorite newspapers/blogs. How can fans join the social conversation if the season is released in one lump sum?
All of this, to me at least, seems to miss the point by putting the cart before the horse. Before all of the questions regarding subscribers, before all the water cooler conversations and episode recaps comes the actual experience of the show. That will always triumph whatever periphery activities surround the experience. I like to think of it as a series of novels: each episode represents a chapter, each season represents a book, the series itself represents the line of books as a whole. Wouldn’t you rather read an entire book at once instead of only being allowed to read a chapter each week?
Some people have mentioned that it makes it harder to talk to others about the series since each person may be stuck on a particular episode; the format makes it harder for everyone to be caught up. But again, that’s not that different from talking to friends about novels. You generally wait until they finish the book, then discuss it. Or even ask what chapter they are on and discuss everything up to that point. Why would that be any different here? And why would anyone put the importance of episode speculation above the importance of the content itself? It’s backwards.
What Netflix is doing is providing more options to their customers, more freedom of choice. We don’t have to wait several months to wrap up a season, we can watch the entire thing in one weekend if we like. Isn’t that where TV has come now? Isn’t that partially why DVRs have become popular, so you can record a show and watch it at your leisure (and skip the loud commercials)? More freedom is never a bad thing. It might be different and feel different, and it might also cause the business executives to scratch their heads. But as a viewer, I love it and I hope the trend continues this way.
Next up for Netflix will be the 4th season of Arrested Development coming to the US on May 4th, 2013 which I expect to be an even bigger success than House of Cards due to the huge cult following the comedy series has. I hope that Netflix will take this new model even further. The way we experience our entertainment is changing and we now have a company that is embracing that completely. And that is a very good thing.
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