A Valentine's Day Massacre: How House of Cards and Netflix Won Big Last Weekend

Jeff Wachtel, President and Chief Content Officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment claimed, “Breaking through the clutter has never been harder.” But Netflix has done it.
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Jeff Wachtel, President and Chief Content Officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment claimed, “Breaking through the clutter has never been harder.” But Netflix has done it.
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This past Valentine’s Day, more than a few couples decided that in lieu of fancy dinners and romantic trysts they would spend night at home and maybe order food in instead. And this wasn’t because people have developed a newfound appreciation for intimacy and this wasn’t because not blowing $400 on a dinner for a made-up holiday is a good way to save money.

This was because of Season 2 of House of Cards.

According to Procera Networks, which solicits and analyzes bandwidth-usage data from multiple Internet service providers, up to 15% of Netflix subscribers on one particular Internet service supplied by an unspecified U.S. cable operator (Procera can’t identify its clients) watched the first episode during a 6 to 8-hour period monitored Friday. And because we don’t know what moderation is/House of Cards is wildly addicting, it looks like 2% of all of Netflix’s 33.4 million U.S. subscribers – or about 670,000 people – binge-watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards Season 2 during its first weekend. This marks a 400 percent increase over Season 1′s opening weekend.

Talk about a power grab.

And while there are some business savvy reasons why Netflix will continue to not share it’s official viewing numbers (meaning we can’t precisely evaluate them), there’s no denying that their out-of-the-box thinking and their “all at once” distribution model will very likely shape how television shows will be created, written, produced, and distributed in the future.

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At the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s annual programmers’ luncheon, the president of NBC Entertainment, Jennifer Salke, admitted “It sometimes feels like The Hunger Games out there as we’re all competing. We’re all looking for the new big show.” Her compatriot Jeff Wachtel, President and Chief Content Officer of NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment added, “Breaking through the clutter has never been harder.”

But Netflix has done it.

And they’ve done it by being willing to do things a little differently.

In fact, their unique place in the entertainment industry and their willingness to embrace that uniqueness is what helped make House of Cards the fantastic thematic, narrative-driven show it is.

Beau Willimon, the Ides of March screenwriter who served as executive producer and showrunner for House of Cards, claims, "We wanted the storytelling to be something that really spoke to the sophistication of the narrative and the layers of the characters and not necessarily try to adhere to any [existing] TV model.”

And let’s face it, Netflix won out with the bet it made on Willimon and Fincher. It believed so much in this/it needed a big win so badly that it laid down $100 million AND a guaranteed second season on the table, and then it was left to hope it had good enough cards to win.

The result is a story that feels fleshed out, coherent, and uncommonly patient.

Willmon explains:

"The partnership with Netflix was perfect because they guaranteed us two seasons up front. And what that allowed me to do in terms of the writing is -- it liberated me. I didn’t have to feel like the show had to sell itself for its own survival with artificial cliffhangers and things like that in the first few episodes, where [on TV networks,] you’re playing the ratings game. We knew that we could lay something in the first couple of episodes that we may not see until late in Season 2. So we just had a much grander scale to think about in terms of the storytelling.

And that grand-scale storytelling has won them a small congressman’s office worth of awards and fans across the world (including the actual President).

Netflix’s full-faith, hands-off approach has proven what other singularly-driven successes like Breaking Bad and Community have already suggested: too many cooks can spoil the television broth. "We didn’t have to jump through a lot of network hoops or get reams and reams of notes,” Willimon notes, "They said to us from the very beginning, 'We place our faith in you. We believe in you and as artists, we want you to make the show you want to make.’” It seems simple when it’s laid out like that, but this is a big change from how shows are normally written and developed --  though it wouldn’t be surprising if more and more networks decide to go this route, put their money behind one person and just let them run free.

But how will they deliver their new content?

Netflix’s subscription-based revenue model caters to the kind of binge-worthy theater of House of Cards, and it’s a major advantage it has over its competitors. As Willimon recounts,

"We thought about all sorts of models: Should we do a traditional [one episode per week]? Should we do it in chunks, like four episodes, then five episodes, then four episodes? We eventually arrived at [offering] 13 all at once because that speaks to what Netflix has to offer that really no other network does. Its subscribers watch content when they want to watch it, how they want to watch it, in what chunks they want to watch it. And so it puts the decision in their hands.

So how do we want to watch it? How do we interact with this new “season-at-a-time” model?

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For the past few decades, the television industry was a fairly rigid empire. There were the big networks, the cable networks, and the occasional HBO’s of the world. We as audiences understood that these networks housed shows that we could expect to see at a certain day at a certain time. We were responsible for watching when it was on and then we were left to wonder, anxiously, what would happen next week.

But House of Cards has gone and, just like its signature American flag, turned that notion upside down.

Now we’re given the freedom to watch this show as we please…and we have no idea what to do about it.

The Atlanticlive-binged it, A.V. Club tried to take their time releasing their reviews/analyses, and the rest of us were left trying to figure out the proper way to prioritize sleep and watching more.

And modern television is no stranger to technological innovation. YouTube gave us season recaps and bonus content, DVRs let us watch shows on our schedules (commercials be damned), and BitTorrents have allowed more law-bending citizens to watch shows they’d never normally get to enjoy (see: BBC’s Sherlock).

But Netflix is a hybrid of all of these, and more.

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Sure, they’ve given up the weekly "social media chatter" boost — there aren’t going to be massive #FrankUnderwood4Life takeovers every Sunday on Twitter (though this does mean #SPOILERS lurk at every corner) — but this may be better for them in the long run.

This brands them as above idle chatter.

If you want to talk about this show, it’s up to you to study it as a work of art, one season at a time. The show then becomes more than just a show, but a piece of media to study whenever one chooses to pick it up. Before it ever has to leave the air, it joins the ranks of The Sopranos or The Wire as part of the canon. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said, "Internet TV is an environment where smaller or quirkier shows can prosper because they can find a big enough audience over time.”

That’s Netflix’s brand.

As their programming chief Ted Sarandos told The Hollywood Reporter, “If they like [a show] they watch more, If they watch more, they will value the service more.” Much the way HBO told us that “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” Netflix wants to elevate itself and its programming.

And then there’s the ace up the company’s sleeve...

Because of their ability to data-mine anything and everything about their users viewing habits, Netflix has something other networks can only dream about: the power of numerical data, and that means they can better hypothesize as to what will succeed in the future. And with their stock surging almost 130% in the last year and the firm’s fourth-quarter earnings far exceeding Wall Street’s expectations, it looks like they’re making some good predictions. In fact, shares of Netflix hit an all-time high of $439.49 on Thursday, one day before House of Cards’ launch.

For a company that looked to be dead in the water only a few years ago, Netflix, with the help of House of Cards, is helping deliver a new message to the television industry...



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