It was the upload heard ’round the world: Last Friday, online television juggernaut Netflix made history by adding an entirely original series to its instant streaming service. House of Cards, starring Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey, is the first big-budget series to be created exclusively for an online provider and could very well be the beginning of the end of television as we know it.
In the virtually untested waters of original online programming, the stakes were high for Netflix’s $100 million dollar gamble in the original debut. Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos says the decision to commit to two seasons of House of Cards did not come lightly.
“We wanted to go all-in,” Sarandos said to the Los Angeles Times. “It’s important to signal … that we’re moving into this space in a meaningful, big way. So we did it loud.”
A glance at the show’s credits, however, suggests that “loud” is an understatement. Executive producer and partial director David Fincher is the man behind such acclaimed works as Fight Club and The Social Network. Paired together with Academy Award-nominated writer Beau Willimon, House of Cards is a series that demands to be taken seriously.
The high degree of talent on the show’s lineup is something that one might expect to find on Showtime or HBO. But when Netflix — formerly strictly a media provider, never a producer of original content — outbid every network that vied to control the show, the world of TV raised its eyebrows.
But for Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of producing studio Media Rights Capital, which created the series, Netflix offered something far more valuable than anything the other networks could: complete artistic freedom.
“[Netflix] gave us the opportunity to be the anchor, the defining show,” Wiczyk said to USA Today about Netflix’s unprecedented 26-episode commitment before filming had even begun. “It was really kind of rare air.”
With unlimited creative control, the producers of House of Cards do not have to obey network demands for script changes or production design specifications; to the filmmakers, this freedom alone could almost be worth the enormous budget to which they are also privy.
Normal network shows are subject to changes sometimes literally while an episode is being filmed — mainly because of current ratings and reviews. “We’re telling a story. We’re gonna tell it at our pace,” actor Corey Stoll told MTV. “… That’s very hard to do when you’re worried about ratings.”
Hopefully, this decision to leave the story uncensored will be of great benefit for not only new fans of House of Cards, but also for online originals in the near future.
If Netflix’s undertaking proves to be as successful as it appears it will, a full move to original online content could be underway very soon. And if online providers follow in Netflix’s footsteps to let their filmmakers have real artistic control, then a new wave of exceptional TV and cinema could be on the way.
But perhaps more valuable to the fast-paced audiences of the digital world, dons one feature that could never be matched by traditional networks: On Feb. 1, the entire first season — not just the first episode — was posted online all at once.
It’s a move that bucks the usual network strategy of “Wait a week and we’ll give you new episodes, then wait a season, we’ll give you another season,” Sarandos told the Los Angeles Times.
But this just won’t do with modern audiences. “The Internet is attuning people to get what they want when they want it,” he said.
The instant gratification that the Internet provides is nothing new, so it seems about time for more facets of pop culture to start exploiting it. Netflix and competitors Hulu and Amazon Prime have established themselves as the standard (legal) online cinema providers, but by creating an entire original series all available in one click, Netflix has significantly upped the game.
In researching how subscribers use their websites, providers like Netflix have coined a new term, “binge-viewing,” to describe the watching of several episodes of a series in one sitting. Sarandos told investors at the BOA Merrill Lynch Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference that he noticed the significance of binge-watching when 50,000 subscribers watched the entire fourth season of Breaking Bad in a 24-hour period the day it was posted on Netflix.
Though Netflix’s competitor Hulu was technically the first to air an original drama online, the lack of a substantial budget and little critical attention prevented it from gaining much attention.
With House of Cards, that certainly isn’t a problem — and it certainly doesn’t seem it will be a problem for other online shows if they follow in Cards’ footsteps.