Editorial: Netflix, HOUSE OF CARDS, and TV Viewing Habits in the Age of Time Shifting

     February 4, 2013


Over the weekend, I tweeted that Kevin Spacey was a shoo-in for a Best Actor Emmy for his performance on House of Cards.  Adam informed me that Spacey was ineligible because House of Cards didn’t meet the Emmys’ definition of broadcast television.  I imagine five years from now, the Emmys and the old-guard TV establishment it represents will finally catch on to the changing landscape of modern viewing habits.  The age of “appointment television” is almost completely dead, and “must-see-TV” has become “I’ll-see-it-when-I-damn-well-please-TV”.  Shows and networks are pushing the boundaries of when we can see them, where we can see them, and as House of Cards showed us this past weekend, how we can see them.  However, we might not have as much power over our viewing habits as technology would lead us to believe.

house-of-cards-final-posterHouse of Cards is not Netflix’s first original series, and it wasn’t the network’s first show to premiere all of its episodes at once.  That honor goes to Lilyhammer, which premiered all eight episodes on Netflix at once.  The only differences are that Lilyhammer premiered first in Norway, and also that no one cares about LilyhammerHouse of Cards was Netflix’s big debut with a hook (the dark inner workings of Washington, D.C.), a lead actor (Kevin Spacey), and a director (David Fincher) that made the show’s premiere an event.  Netflix will be premiering Arrested Development the same way later this year, but that show has a built-in audience.  House of Cards is all Netflix, and it’s an essential step for both the network’s survival and the distribution of modern television.

Netflix needs original programming to survive.  The DVD market is drying up because we’re impatient, and if we want to watch Anonymous Rex, we don’t want to wait for the disc to arrive, but sometimes that’s our only option.  When it comes to TV, networks are going out of their way to make sure we can watch everything on demand.  We can get shows through our cable provider, we can buy the episode from Apple or Amazon, we can stream through Hulu, and more.  We can watch shows on our TV, our computers, our tablets, our phones, and more.  Netflix is racing to get ahead of its competitors by making itself available on every platform, but at the end of the day, the streaming service almost exclusively relies on licensing rights.

But suppose you’re Comcast.  You own NBC-Universal.  Why do you want to license your shows and movies to Netflix, when you can offer them through Comcast OnDemand or Hulu (which is partially owned by Comcast)?  Why drive away people from your subscription services?  We’re left to wonder when another communications conglomerate will come along and purchase another studio.  There’s also the matter of cost for Netflix.  At some point, licensing rights might be too expensive for the company, so what will be left?  Eventually, Netflix could morph into a larger HBO: original programming plus studio movies.  Netflix could also have the benefit of a much larger library.

Within this new business model, Netflix will have to keep creating original series and probably original movies as well.  They’ll have to keep recruiting top talent like Spacey and Fincher.  The marketing of House of Cards was played to perfection, and the method of distribution was the masterstroke.  Netflix can resemble HBO, but it won’t be exactly like HBO.  Netflix wants to make House of Cards appointment television by virtue of having to watch it all at once.

the-walking-dead-season-3-posterThere are few shows left that qualify as “appointment viewing”.  In fact, appointment viewing (outside of the sad, old people who don’t leave their homes because they’re busy watching NCIS when it airs) now exists because people are afraid of spoilers.  My job requires me to monitor an RSS feed, and even though I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I can be pretty sure who died on last night’s episode because all of sudden a bunch of websites have an interview with an actor who plays a supporting character.  But for most viewers, the larger threat is Twitter. Some people believe it’s the responsibility of the individual to avoid Twitter until they’ve seen the show, and others believe it’s polite to avoid discussing spoilers until some undetermined point in the future.

One technology forces us to play by the rules, and another technology allows us to break them.  So did fear of spoilers keep you up until 3:00am watching House of Cards?  Or did you decide to chance it and watch the show on your schedule?  If you want to talk at the endless watercooler that is the Internet, did you have to devote 13 hours in a weekend to a show rather than one hour per week?

This is the great responsibility that has come with our new great power.  We can time-shift.  We can let our DVR fill up with the shows we want to see, and see them when we want.  Some shows, usually comedies, allow this behavior.  I’m not on the edge of my seat wondering what will happen on the latest episode of Modern Family.  But when we decide to wait on serialized dramas, we’re rolling the dice.  People who wait until the DVD are almost playing with fire.

tivo-box-tablet-phoneHouse of Cards is like a direct-to-VOD movie, but with marketing investment.  When you go to the movies, how often do you see a trailer promoting a film that will be out on VOD before it hits theaters?  Studios like Magnolia now use this as their business model, and other indie studios are following suit.  But the spoiler issue doesn’t enter into VOD movies because they’re not events and they’re not episodic.  No one is worried about how Bachelorette ends.  But I’m curious to find out how many people marathon’d House of Cards this weekend because they felt obligated to.

That will remain a mystery just as VOD box office remains a mystery.  We like to quantify, but in the new model, we don’t always get weekend box office or Nielsen ratings.  How many people “tuned-in” to watch House of Cards this weekend?  What does that even mean for a show that airs all 13 episodes at once?  If Netflix were to issue a press release bragging about the show’s viewership, what would it promote?  The first episode was posted online for free, so does that even count?

house-of-cards-kevin-spacey-1Netflix could have rolled out House of Cards like a normal series: a new episode at a set time once a week.  But why do it that way when they don’t have to?  HBO and other networks have no choice.  They’re locked into the old ways.  If HBO decided to drop the entire new season of Game of Thrones on their streaming service, HBO GO, then how does that affect the rest of the channel’s programming?  Could we reach the point where HBO: The Channel disappears and all that’s left is HBO GO?

We don’t know even know if House of Cards is critically a success.  Even early reviews only looked at the first two episodes.  Furthermore, TV critics and audiences don’t get to set the tempo for how the show is perceived.  It’s not like Smash where viewers came together and cried out that Ellis was the worst character ever.  If you want to let House of Cards sink in, then you can watch it at your own pace.  But if you want to make sure you’re on the same page as everyone else, you need to watch the entire series as soon as possible.  If I make a comment about character’s behavior in episode six because that’s the latest episode I’ve seen, you either bite your tongue or laugh in my face because you know what happens three episodes later.  The implication of avoiding spoilers goes far deeper than simply avoiding the Internet.  We’re forced to consider when we can even begin discussing the merits of the series.

Netflix is changing the rules of programming, and it’s the inevitable outgrowth of TV on our terms. Or at least what we think are our terms.

[Click here for my spoiler-free review of all 13 episodes of House of Cards.]