House of Cards, or firm foundations? Netflix's new distribution model

25 February 2013

When the final part of the politically-charged British drama House of Cards aired in 1990, two days prior to the Conservative Party leadership election, John Major’s campaign HQ was said to have come to a halt as all employed there gathered to watch the series finale. Now in 2013, the American version has had a similarly arresting effect, but this time it’s the television industry that watches on with baited breath.

This time however, it’s not the subject matter which is keeping interested parties on tenterhooks, but the way in which the series is being consumed, and by whom. The US version of House of Cards was funded by Netflix - known previously as a provider rather than producer of video content - to the tune of $100million, and then made available earlier this month exclusively to its subscribers. If that was unusual, how Netflix chose to distribute House of Cards is being heralded in some corners as revolutionary.  

The series was launched earlier this month in its entirety, meaning all episodes were made available to watch immediately for would-be viewers. Although eschewing the more traditional distribution route of network or cable television is still very much a largely untried and untested experiment, House of Cards had a few aces up its sleeve to ease concerns. Firstly, the British series was acclaimed by both the public and critics alike upon its broadcast, even winning a place in the prestigious BFI list of the 100 Greatest Television Programmes.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the names attached read more like an Oscar-winning film than something akin to a television series. With David Fincher directing, and Kevin Spacey in the lead role, Netflix ensured that, even in these days of star powered US TV dramas, House of Cards stood out as being worthy of your attention.

Also, it probably hasn’t escaped your attention that in 2013, Netflix is big business. According to Salon, last year Americans watched more movies legally delivered via the Internet than on physical formats like Blu-Ray discs or DVDs, and Netflix, with 25 million subscribers in the US alone, was at the forefront of this sea change.

And those subscribers aren’t just watching cinema of course. The wealth of television programmes available on sites such as Netflix have combined with the DVD box set industry to bring about the age of the binge viewer, audiences who consume series such as Breaking Bad in huge chunks, rather than on the weekly basis they appear on television.

So, with all that considered, Netflix decided to take that $100million gamble. But did it pay off? Information is fairly scarce, but what we do know so far seems fairly positive. Although unwilling to release actual viewing figures, Netflix confirmed last week that House of Cards was the most watched show on its online platform right now. Also, according to Unmetric, “the show’s trailer is the most viewed of all the videos in Netflix’s YouTube Channel”, with more than 1.2 million views.

Analysing Twitter data led Lost Remote to pronounce the series a “social success”, but according to The Atlantic Netflix would need “520,834 people to sign up for a $7.99 subscription for two years” before we can consider this as good business on their part. As such, whether House of Cards has done enough to overhaul the current model of distribution is very much moot, although it seems both believers and naysayers are willing to fight their respective corners.

HBO has recently revealed that its viewers really only “binge view” in the lead-up to the launch of new seasons, and are reluctant to make a whole season available simultaneously due in part to concerns over problems with spoilers, but also because making a series like Game of Thrones available concurrently means losing the huge conversational surge (both online and in person) that follows each episode as the show edges closer to the next finale. HBO believes it is that momentum that keeps audience figures high, and is loath to tinker with a winning formula.

For its part, Netflix is set to repeat the House of Cards experiment a number of times in the coming months, most notably with the new season of the beloved comedy Arrested Development, but also with Lilyhammer and prison comedy Orange is the New Black, both based on original source material. The difference here is that, whilst both Arrested Development and House of Cards both had star power and a ready-made audience in waiting, Lilyhammer and Orange… have no such guarantees.
The real litmus test for this brave new world of viewer control is yet to come then, it seems. But whatever the outcome, you can be sure the UK, just like everybody else, will be watching.

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