I’ve had a lot of discussions with friends about Netflix recent release of “House of Cards”. There continues to be a lot of discussion well after the release date, and Rick Leibling published a very thorough post in which does an excellent job of summarizing a lot of the commentary while pointing out how Netflix is doubling down on its role as disruptor. What I’d like to consider in a bit more detail are three aspects of House of Cards that, while controversial, have led to its success and likelihood of its being a model for the future streaming entertainment.
1. Netflix is an Archive
Perhaps one of the biggest things that has bothered many commentators, and Netflix users, has been the decision to release the entire show all at once. A lot of this has been ascribed to the fact that Netflix used its Big Data muscle to learn that its audience went in for “binge” viewing of shows. Somehow I can’t imagine that this was some sort of new revelation for Netflix. This type of behavior has been going on for a long time, in fact well before they began streaming programs. In my case I was pretty much inhaling episodes of The Wire as soon as they became available on Netflix DVD. No, I couldn’t get an entire season at once, but if I could have I would, so my use case was to immediately binge on the six episodes available to me at that moment.
This binge use case reflects the fact that most of its users see Netflix as an archive. Until the arrival of original content Netflix pretty much functioned as an storehouse of video content that had been previously created and transmitted by others. Netflix’s role was to source a huge selection of this previously created content and make it available in new and innovative ways. In this role it was always possible for it to, upon acquiring a season of 30 Rock, make it available in stages or episodes. But that would never have worked for a pretty obvious reason: Why would anyone want to have limits on viewing content that had been previously released. The problem that many people have with the House of Cards release is that it is unreleased content and for that reason it has to be shown in the way that we have been used to seeing it, by rationing it and thereby creating a culture of suspense and desire.
Which is not to say that I’m opposed to that culture, but it reminds me of this quote from Paul Adams: “People applied the way they worked with existing media to the new media”. While “House of Cards” is not “new” media its all you can eat distribution is “new” distribution to which we are applying old rules. Netflix’s essential nature is basically of an archive, or a library. And like a library it offers pretty much unlimited access to the mix of content that it has available. Netflix has always understood this fundamental use case and so when they released House of Cards it wasn’t that they were rejecting the potential of serialization. Instead, they were making a pretty clear statement to existing users and new subscribers: This is how we distribute content, get used to it.
2. So, What is an episode?
With all you can eat distribution another question that comes up is the nature of episodes. If you release of 13 hours of content in one go, why not release it as a single 13 hour movie? This is actually a far more interesting idea to ponder than the perils of binge viewing. When you consider that there’s no sort of timed release, what reason is there any more to create content in handy one hour doses, and what are the new potentials for creativity and storytelling if writers and directors are freed from the bounds of an hourly format.
The idea of storytelling via episode reached its heyday with serializations in newspapers and journals. Dickens, Zola and many others churned out well known, and not so well known, works in chapters that appeared on a regularly scheduled basis. The use case for this type of serialization was all about the publisher and advertising. By getting readers to return to find out what happened to Oliver Twist publishers could build up and maintain readership that translated to growing ad revenue. This structure was readily adopted by radio and television networks and became the mainstay of the programming schedule that we’re all familiar with. But when you can now release an entire season at once, why shouldn’t you also be liberated from packaging it in an hourly capsule. If the story demands a full telling of in Episode 4, why not go an hour and 15 minutes, 93 minutes or even 45 minutes. When you consider that Mad Men was nearly scuttled by an argument about two minutes of episode time, imagine the creative freedom and potential you could get by allowing creators to define episode length in order to tell a better story.
This is the challenging, and exciting, question and one that will take lots of experimentation to figure out, and Netflix’s Big Data may be very useful here. Anecdotally it seems that the reason I and many of my friends watch streaming series on weekdays is because we don’t want to make the commitment to the full, ponderous and probably lengthy movie. Whether it’s growing up with network TV or just simply a need to control time and limit deeper thinking from our weekday entertainment, the idea of specific capsules of time still seem to make sense. That being said, in today’s world of time shifting its no longer about what’s on at 9 pm. By managing viewer expectations and demonstrating the real value of giving an episode the time it deserves, storytellers could eventually be able to tell better stories and we will be end up being happier viewers.
3. Data and Creativity
Which brings me to the last point about the limits of what data can or cannot do. Much has been made about the fact that Netflix commissioned “House of Cards” based on seeing a positive data confluence around Kevin Spacey, David Fincher and the original BBC series. This has brought up the specter of bean counting software commissioning scripts based on algorithms that would deliver us a soulless version of “exactly” what we wanted. Sort of like the idea that Facebook will ultimately deliver the right content to us based on our “Likes”. While there’s always the possibility of this I think that the success of “House of Cards” proves that data, if handled correctly, can be a very good producer.
I’m a huge fan of the original BBC version, Kevin Spacey and David Fincher, but very much in that order. So when I heard Spacey utter the memorable, “You might think that…”, line from the original I felt the warm delight of nostalgia and expectation re-experience the old in a new setting. It was when I realized that I would only hear that line twice that I began to pay attention to the show itself and how its writers, directors and actors had been wrenched it out of the past and made it very much their own. The familiar players of the original have been updated and are much more deeply defined. Zoe Barnes is not the naïve, fawning reporter that Mattie Storin was in the original and Francis’ wife, a rarely seen, scary figure in the original, gets a far more complete and nuanced role in this version. Yes, there are a few things I miss from the original, there are a couple of episodes that feel flat, (did they need to fill in a whole hour?), and I have a real problem with parts of the Pete Russo story. But overall by taking complete ownership of the story they were able to retell it anew and in a way that kept me, and many others it seems, riveted. No matter if they watched it in one gulp or in hourly drips.
The role of data, as author and producer, should be like that of any great impresario. Find a great story, find the right people and then get out of the way and deliver it to the audience in the way they want it. This part doesn’t change.