Almost a week ago Netflix released its long-awaited TV show – “House of Cards”. With that, many news outlets, blogs, twitter and the like literally exploded from a debate that this particular show has brought about (read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here). Having read a lot of the discussion in question and myself being a self-pronounced TV-show addict (I know, it’s not pretty, but daddy needs his fix) I’d like to give you my two cents on the subject.
So, in the recent months it has come to my attention that Netflix (a major player in the business of online streaming and DVD rental) had decided to step into the producing field and fund its own original content (read here) and thus become the next HBO, which is quite well regarded for the quality of their released franchises (i.e. Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos), most of which gained worldwide recognition or even the cult status in certain circles. Netflix took this endeavor in a very professional way by investing immense capital in signing high profile directors/producers like David Fincher (produced and directed “House of Cards”) or Eli Roth (now directing and producing “Hemlock Grove”, a yet-to-be-released horror series) and actors (Kevin Spacey, Famke Jannsen, Jason Bateman among others). And as of 1st of February 2013, “House of Cards” has become available for streaming. So, what is this whole fuss all about?
First of all, before I even start – go and watch “House of Cards” if you haven’t already. If you don’t have a Netflix account, get one or go to your neighbor’s house and watch it. I don’t know – do whatever you need to do, but make sure you see this show. It’s a fantastically produced drama about the ins and outs of modern journalism and politics. In a nutshell, “House of Cards” tells a story of a veteran congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) who – through scheming, manipulation and diabolical planning – will achieve anything he sets his mind to and nothing and no-one will stand in his way. When a newly-elected US president (Michael Gill) fails to deliver on a promise to make him the Secretary of State, Francis plans a Machiavellian revenge, which partly involves using a young and ambitious journalist, Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara – Rooney Mara’s younger sister), by feeding her news ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. A stunning combination of a compelling story, which starts out as a breeze only to mutate into a deadly hurricane, and convincing characters makes “House of Cards” a show that you cannot stop watching.
That’s right. You can watch it all at once. I sure did. Well, almost, because it took me four days to plow through all 13 episodes. And by far, the fact that Netflix had the audacity to release its flagship program as a full season became the starting point of this whole debate. Quite frankly, by doing this, Netflix has effectively shown a finger to any TV station, because they allowed us to watch their show however we see fit. In reality this decision translated to ‘they allowed us to binge-watch a brand new show without breaks and commercials’. What really bugs me here is the fact that – even with an extremely positive feedback from the viewers – some people just don’t really want to get on board with it.
Ok, I have a confession to make: as I stated before, I am a TV-series junkie. I love a good TV show with a strong emphasis on shows with continuous plot. Not that I don’t appreciate things like “House” or “The X-Files”, but I always preferred to be drawn in by the story in shows like “Dexter”, “Lost”, “Prison Break”, “24” or recently “Breaking Bad”, “The Walking Dead”, “Homeland” or “Game of Thrones”. Moreover, what I loved the most was being able to binge my way through the episodes and in my career “24” would be the prime example of what I mean by binge. I started watching it when the seventh season was about to roll out and it took me a week to watch the previous six. And I have to say that shows with a continuous plot are much better when you have the ability to sit down and guzzle down a whole season (or a couple of them). Whenever I catch up with the show, watching it becomes a frustrating task – being forced to wait for a whole week for the next episode like some sort of an animal. At this point, I’d rather wait a couple of weeks to see a bunch of episodes in a short burst at least to have a whiff of the ecstasy of the binge, but then not knowing would eat me alive so it could be accurately described as a lose-lose situation.
“House of Cards” showed that there’s a strong community of people like me. We are indeed legion. I’m perfectly aware that Netflix knew that all along because they have data on streaming profiles which show how people watch TV shows online. And in my view this is just what we need. I’d like to see new shows available for binge-viewing.
Certain people, like Peter Sciretta at /Film, don’t see it that way and they refuse to view releasing a whole season of a show in one go as a viable business model. While I understand where they are coming from (reluctance to this idea could possibly stem from our innate fear of radical change) I think that certain shows would benefit vastly from being dropped as a full season in a single instance.
At this point, I’d like to say that not all shows would work well in that model. “House”, “The X-files”, virtually all the sitcoms, or even “Grey’s Anatomy” wouldn’t gain anything from that. In fact, they would get gimped slightly in my opinion due to the self-contained nature of the episodes. I could sit down and watch any episode of “House” and I could be able to sit through it and know what is going on; because, while the relationship between characters makes for the sense of continuity, the focus of each episode is always different. This is what makes “House” a perfect show to watch every week. Every week is a new adventure, a new puzzle to solve and the fact that continuity exists only as background makes me just about keen enough to go back next week and have another slice of cake.
However, a show like “Breaking bad” or “Lost” is a whole different kettle of fish. Here we’ve got the story arc that lies at the heart of the show together with the character development. I would even go as far as to say that a perfectly executed show with continuous plot should resemble a fragmented movie. This is a very delicate subject to be messing with on a week-by-week basis. First of all, when you miss an episode or two – the game is over. Don’t tell me that you can record it or use VoD, because you can’t always do that. And when you find yourself in that predicament, you can either try to piece the missing parts together using various media (which is not the same as watching it), continue watching the show every week as if nothing had happened (but we all know that it’s not the same any more – we don’t understand some characters any more, or simply have no clue what is going on) or cease watching altogether until the full season is released on DVD, get it and go on a binge.
This is the point where Netflix hit the spot. Not only can I watch the whole season at a pace I’m most comfortable with, I am granted another degree of freedom in being able to watch it on my laptop, tablet, phone, TV and in my living-room, kitchen, bed, or on a can – however my soul desires… The added benefit of not having to watch commercial breaks every 10 minutes is just the icing on the cake. Could this be the beginning of the end of TV as we know it? I barely watch regular TV anymore and if I could have my shows without having to watch TV – count me in. I would most welcome the TV shows mutating into fragmented movies dished out in chapters that I can devour as fast as I so please.
The prerequisite of producers having to come up with the whole season from the get-go would prevent shows like “Lost” spiraling out of control way beyond what I can swallow. Let’s be honest here; had “Prison Break” been released in this new model, the appallingly weak third season never would have happened. The viewers wouldn’t have to take in ridiculous plot holes that arose for political reasons (like when an actor is suddenly fired), shows wouldn’t get cancelled halfway through the season because 5 million viewers is not enough, and conversely weak shows would be allowed to die with dignity having lived through a full season.
That would bring TV shows on par with movies, at least when it comes to production. And yes – the model for TV would have to be adjusted to accommodate the evolutionary changes. The high-profile and high-budget productions would resemble movies in that regard with budgets planned in order to break even in the ‘home box office’. I would propose either the HBO or Netflix model that are subscription-based or the on-demand model that relies on releasing the show for a one-off cost of the whole season (digitally or DVD) with the periodic TV release becoming the secondary medium. And no – I don’t really think that it wouldn’t work because people would unsubscribe having watched the freshly dropped season of a given show. Claiming that ‘I know people that do’ is not an argument at all. It’s a textbook example of a hasty generalization (or small sample) fallacy where a relatively small set of data is preemptively extrapolated into a general rule, i.e. none of my friends smoke cigarettes, therefore most people do not smoke. It’s false. Full stop.
Now that “House of Cards” went live and “Hemlock Grove” is about to drop in April, I eagerly await how the world responds to the gauntlet thrown by Netflix. I sincerely hope that it would become the future of TV shows (at least those where continuity matters) and I can only see it as improvement on the quality of television. Or should I still call it television? Maybe it’s time we coined a new term for this phenomenon…