“House of Cards” – a different kind of TV

I just realized this afternoon how bad I’ve been at posting on this lately. Sure, I have a few excuses, like a busy start to the year, and then taking vacation last month. But there’s something else that’s been occupying my time lately – “House of Cards,” the new original programming created by Netflix that the online streaming service released in January.

If you’re not familiar with “House of Cards,” here are the details: It’s a political thriller (an apt description I read calls it “West Wing meets Breaking Bad”) that stars Kevin Spacey as a conniving politician with a wonderful southern accent, and was released by Netflix in one fell swoop. That is, all 13 episodes were released at once, which meant that people could stream it at their leisure, or turn off their phones and watch it in one sitting. It cost $100 million to make, and it looks like it – it’s a beautiful, addicting and entertaining piece of “television.” And the critics mostly seem to agree.

Once I started watching last month, I couldn’t stop. And when it was finished, I wanted to know when the next season would be done, and subsequently released.

There were a lot of questions that accompanied the release of “House of Cards,” though. Some media outlets wondered if it would lead people to subscribe, and stay subscribed, to Netflix – after all, you get a free month of membership when you sign up. So, technically, someone could sign up, watch the show in that first month, then quit and not have to pay anything. For a $100 million investment, that’s a bit of a gamble.

Then, there was the question of what effect the new format would have on standard cable or network television. Some critics were concerned that if the “House of Cards” format succeeds and is embraced by viewers, it could slowly lead to the demise of the “communal” TV viewing experience – that there would be no morning gatherings at the work water cooler the next day to talk about last night’s episode because everyone is watching the show on their own time. 

But the fact is, nobody’s really sure what effect “House of Cards” is going to have. Will it pay off and be followed by a number of other shows developed in the same format? Or will Netflix decide it wasn’t worth the $100 million investment and try something else (production has already started on a second season, if that’s any indication)?

Personally, I have no idea what to think about the possible consequences the show could have. In a sense, I have to think that it’s just a natural extension of the freedom that TiVo, DVR and Hulu give us. I may not quite be so motivated to watch “Parks and Recreation” when it airs on Thursday, for example, because I know that I can just watch it on Hulu the next day.  Of course, the “watch when we want to watch” mentality leaves us vulnerable to the possibility of having the show spoiled for us before we’re able to watch, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

But does any of that mean that the future of television will be completely this “when you want it” model? Who knows. Maybe, maybe not. But I do think that there’s a part of us that enjoys tuning into a show at the same time as our friends and family, and texting, tweeting, Facebooking and calling to say “Oh my gosh, can you believe that just happened?” I doubt that part of our TV experience will go away altogether, but who’s to say for sure.

In the short-term, news released in recent days makes it appear as if Netflix’s bet on “House of Cards” has paid off – a small survey of people said watching “House of Cards” has made them more likely to stay subscribed to Netflix. Additionally, the show is Netflix’s most popular programming, at least, that’s if you believe what Netflix is saying (they’re not obligated to release viewership statistics. That’s obviously different from network television, where you’re able to track how many people tune into a show on any given night).

So what do you think? Have you already checked out “House of Cards” on Netflix, or are you planning on doing so in the future? If you’re not a Netflix member now, would you be more likely to become one – and then stay a member after the free month is up?

Unrelated notes: Besides “House of Cards,” the most intriguing new show of the season (for me) has been “The Americans” on FX. I had high hopes for “The Following” on Fox, but I got turned off by the gratuitious amount of violence, though I’ve heard that’s since tapered off in the last few episodes.

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