This is an important time for Netflix. Last week brought us the reports about the company’s fourth-quarter boosts in new subscribers and income and this week, we're all gearing up for the premiere of House of Cards, the streaming service’s first major foray into original production and distribution (Netflix did shepherd 2011’s Lilyhammer to its streaming interface, but the show didn’t make much of an impact with audiences or critics). Never shy from big moves and big boasting, Netflix is ready to take its turn at remaking the television business model. In an interview with GQ, chief content officer Ted Sarandos noted that Netflix’s up-front commitment to full seasons of series (compared to networks’ more methodical pitch-to-script-to-pilot-to-series-order process that’s happening as we speak) is in place “to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”
Grandiose aims aside, with House of Cards—and April’s Hemlock Grove and May’s not-fourth fourth season of Arrested Development—Netflix is going to test some of the assumptions about contemporary television viewing practices. The prevailing thought among reporters, critics, and even decision-makers within the industry is that we now love to marathon episodes and even full seasons or series all at once. How many stories have been written about these changing viewing habits over the past few years? I’m not taking shots at all those pieces because they’re right on-point, but it’s a little easier to look at declining live Nielsen ratings and increasing DVR ratings, or to read a data-light press release from Hulu or Netflix about certain viewer habits, and speculate (albeit in an educated fashion) that we consume TV differently now. We definitely do, but House of Cards is the first high-profile production to fully embrace those newer viewing practices and there are a number of different ways this could develop.
The tension lies between what is beneficial for us as viewers and what is beneficial for Netflix’s bottom line, subscription base, and cultural cachet. Netflix is betting—based on their internal analytics, obviously—that viewers want to have all 13 episodes of House of Cards or all 14 episodes of Arrested Development available to them in an instant. In theory, this is great for us, because we get the television we want RIGHT NOW, and great for Netflix because it gives us what we want RIGHT NOW and we renew our subscriptions, tell our friends, etc.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. This week, Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein presented a compelling case that providing all the episodes up front might not be in the best interest of Netflix or viewers. Wallenstein argues that with all the episodes available from the jump, Netflix customers will sign up for a free trial, purge through all the Arrested Development and Hemlock Grove they want to watch and quit within a week, presumably costing the company money. He also warns that the relationships viewers build with a show over the course of a season won’t be as satisfying, or at least that they'll be much different.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with Wallenstein’s hypothesis, but it further establishes that whatever happens with Netflix, House of Cards, and Arrested Development, we’re in an important transitional moment for television production, distribution, and consumption. If these experiments are a success, in whatever way Netflix conceives of success, the company will look like a genius and maybe Hulu and Amazon Instant Video follow suit. Maybe more and more shows get released all at once and the broadcast networks, already a little confused about how “online buzz” can factor into their antiquated business model (see: the early online release of pilots), try way too hard to compete with the industry’s new normal. Fans can watch at their own pace even more—and probably complain about spoilers on Twitter even more—and the long-standing fears about mass cable-cutting begins. Even television critics’ jobs change, if just a little.
When you start going down that road of what-ifs, it’s a slippery slope. Do I think Netflix is going to revolutionize television? Probably not. But even if Netflix’s experiment “fails,” it still feels like we’re going to learn some new and informative things about television in the coming year. After years of dueling narratives about technology and new viewership practices killing or saving television, this event should give us some tangible evidence that neither is really true, which is ultimately more interesting anyway.
But, business matters aside, I’m curious about how House of Cards and whatever comes after it could change the way we talk about television. The popularity of episodic commentary has grown exponentially over the last few years; with the recap/review and its attached comments section powering sites like this one on a daily basis. If you regularly visit places like TV.com, chances are much of your social media experience involves television as well. It’s complicated enough to have to deal spoiler-phobia all over Twitter and Facebook and in comments sections because of time-zone differences and DVR preferences. Doesn’t having all of this first season available immediately exacerbate those social landmines?
Nevertheless, it all starts with us. Netflix is going to put all these episodes of House of Cards out there in a matter of hours—tomorrow marks the official release date, and the launch is set to take place at midnight Pacific / 3am Eastern—so now we, in some way, get to determine how the industry moves forward (or doesn’t). I want to hear your thoughts on this. How are you going to watch these episodes (or are you)? Do you think there is a “better” way to watch a full season? And how do you think the all-at-once release model might impact the way we talk about these shows?