Netflix’s House of Cards

February 1st, 2013

Netflix released the first season of “House of Cards” today:

On Friday, Netflix will release a drama expressly designed to be consumed in one sitting: “House of Cards,” a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Rather than introducing one episode a week, as distributors have done since the days of black-and-white TVs, all 13 episodes will be streamed at the same time. “Our goal is to shut down a portion of America for a whole day,” the producer Beau Willimon said with a laugh.

“House of Cards,” of course, is Netflix’s original “television” show that stars Kevin Spacey and is produced by David Fincher.

I’ve been excited since hearing about this, so I can’t wait to start watching it, but what’s more interesting to me is how successful this could be. It’s Kevin Spacey and David Fincher together making a high quality, serial political thriller; if it were premiering on a cable channel (like, say, AMC), there’s no doubt it’d have a huge audience.

But it’s not. It’s Netflix’s show, and it’s only available there. It shows; rather than “broadcast” a new episode each week at a certain time on a certain day, all thirteen episodes of its first season became available today. If you’d like, you could sit down right now and watch the entire first season—on its first day. Or you can space it out. Whatever you want, just like we’ve all been watching TV series on Netflix that we missed when they originally aired. And because they are intending the show for people who will watch one episode after another, there are no recaps at the beginning of each episode, either.

There’s been a huge amount of discussion about “when” television will become like the web, where we can watch what we want when we want it and only pay for it, rather than a bundle of things we don’t want. Well, that’s going to be a while, if it happens at all, because television is built on expensive cable subscriptions with advertising and hundreds of channels. There probably will never be a day when, suddenly, you can pay for only Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, or whatever you watch, and nothing else.

But Netflix is creating a new path for television-like content. If Netflix’s original productions are successful, then there will be a second way for television-like content to reach an audience. When someone’s thinking about creating a new show, they will be able to choose the traditional model (production studios, cable networks) or the streaming model. And if enough shows go the second route, cable won’t be the only place where all the content is.

At that point, the economics would shift. Cable subscriptions wouldn’t be the only viable way to make a successful show, and it wouldn’t be the place to go for good shows. Netflix could very well end up being a must-have for people who love good television. At that point, many people very well could cut the cord and go streaming-only for television. And once that happens, the traditional cable networks and production studios may have no choice but to offer their shows (or new shows) via streaming.

That’s the best approach, I think, to undermining the cable monopoly. People go to where the content is, so creating shows for the new medium, only available through it, and are must-watch shows is the best way to weaken cable’s grip. That’s what Netflix has the potential to do. But one step at a time; right now, what they have to do is make a show that’s so good, no one can ignore it.