This Week on Demand: House of Cards (Part 2)

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Editor’s Note: this piece is an examination of the ramifications of Netflix’s move to original programming. For Ronan’s review of House of Cards, see here.

It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.” Such was the slogan of the Home Box Office for almost thirteen years beginning in 1996, the year before the debut of Oz signalled the onset of their game-changing slate of original programming that revolutionised the nature of long-form storytelling. It’s telling that the channel’s slogan is now simply “It’s HBO”; nowadays it is TV, the almost two decades since seeing audiences grow accustomed to television as a bastion of production values on a cinematic scale and character development of a literary nature. HBO, and Showtime and AMC and more still in its wake, have brought television into the twenty-first century as not just an art form in its own right, but as one more than capable of rivalling the others in the extent of its artistry.

The move to original programming in the vein of television, then, sees Netflix enter a market that it can easily emulate; between DVRs and online catch-up, TV and VOD grow less distinct by the day: the laptop is the new set-top box in this modern world of instant watching, minus the commercials and cliffhangers, the scores of dire channels and seas of dreadful content.

cards4Enter House of Cards, Netflix’s long-promised re-redefinition of television in the context of the internet age; their first foray into original programming—with a further three shows to debut this year—its freedom from the ties of traditional broadcasting has earned it much attention as a potential game-changer, not least of all from Netflix’s own PR people. Certainly the streaming service—in itself and in the ever-expanding video-on-demand culture it is largely responsible for—has already changed the way we watch movies: over a third of new releases I reviewed last year were seen via VOD, for instance. Yet the theatrical experience, in its sense of community and the epic methods of presentation it offers, has endured the streaming boom as it did the rise of television in the 1950s: as low as the price goes, as diverse as the content comes, Netflix can never hope to emulate the cinematic experience.

The move to original programming in the vein of television, then, sees Netflix enter a market that it can easily emulate; between DVRs and online catch-up, TV and VOD grow less distinct by the day: the laptop is the new set-top box in this modern world of instant watching, minus the commercials and cliffhangers, the scores of dire channels and seas of dreadful content. Ousting the middle man and eliminating the need to look to others for content—not unlike Loew’s Theatres’ acquisition of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Mayer Pictures to form MGM in 1924—the establishment of Netflix as a studio as well as a distributor potentially poses a challenge far more direct and real to television than was ever put to cinema, essentially offering the same experience and more beside it for a price far cheaper.

It’s also indicative, crucially, of the considerable resources and power Netflix brings to bear; its ability to attract names the like of Spacey and Fincher and spend sums the like of almost $4 million an episode—a second season of thirteen episodes was ordered alongside the first for a total $100 million price tag—puts it in pole position to become the market leader.

cards3Whether the potential challenge is indeed posed falls to the quality of the material and the reaction it elicits; is House of Cards, as a representative of this bold new move for Netflix, enough to make the TV studio heads sweat? The short answer—for the long answer, see my accompanying review—is yes: afflicted as it is with the typical teething issues of a first season, this is a series with all the requisite intelligence of writing, depth of character, and standard of production to play HBO at its own game. It’s also indicative, crucially, of the considerable resources and power Netflix brings to bear; its ability to attract names the like of Spacey and Fincher and spend sums the like of almost $4 million an episode—a second season of thirteen episodes was ordered alongside the first for a total $100 million price tag—puts it in pole position to become the market leader.

What’s perhaps most interesting—outside the ramifications upon the drama itself—about the dual qualities of being a television show without being a show on television is that it offers us no distinct means to gauge House of Cards’ success and impact. There will be no Nielsen ratings to offer indications of the episodes’ viewership, nor will Netflix release that information themselves. There will be, of course, no advertising revenue nor box set sales to analyse. Perhaps all we will have to judge by is the original programming to follow—among it the new season of Arrested Development—and whether it will continue to follow. For months now Netflix have been telling us that their way is the future of television. Part of their genius lies in the fact that only they will know whether that is true.

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.