House of Cards: The New Media Crack for Netflix Addicts
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The Fiscal Times
February 21, 2014

This past weekend, while many Americans were snowed in their homes, over 5 million of them did the exact same thing (minds out of the gutter, kids) — they watched at least one episode of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” Season 2.  Somewhat incredibly, over 1 million of those subscribers watched at least five episodes over the weekend, participating in the modern phenomenon we call “binge watching.”

This is a tremendous win for “House of Cards,” proving that its first season wasn’t just gliding on the novelty, captivated by Kevin Spacey’s smarmy charm and David Fincher’s ice-cool style. Customers were still eagerly glued to their sets/monitors/tablets to see what dirty political tricks Frank Underwood would pull off this year.

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“House of Cards” Season 2 was also a win for Netflix. The first season of Cards joined “Orange is the New Black” in proving that Netflix could be a reliable promoter of popular quality entertainment and not simply a distribution network.  2014 seemed poised to be the year the other networks struck back. Netflix’s window to maintain momentum was very narrow. January saw HBO’s Southern Gothic, “True Detective” become the first break-out show of the year, garnering glowing critical reviews and a sizeable audience. April will see the return of juggernauts such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and AMC’s “Mad Men.” If Cards had folded…it would have been a dark spring for Netflix.

It doesn’t matter that the show isn’t very good. It only matters that it’s addictive.

Beyond the obvious ratings victory for Netflix, it is also a victory for “bingers.” Despite Cards’ popularity, there is more than a little criticism that the show is just a soap opera for political junkies. But as Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias points out, it doesn’t matter that the show isn’t very good. It only matters that it’s addictive.

Consider the two user experiences. HBO launches its new show on Sunday nights. After a few weeks of critical buzz and media blitz promotion, the show airs. Viewers tune in, and if HBO is lucky the product catches on. Viewers talk about it on social media and at the water cooler. Now there is a six-day gap during which that enthusiasm can fade, and all that viewers have to hold onto is the one hour that they watched last week. During that time, new distractions will pop up. Maybe the viewer will watch something else. Maybe the viewer will forget.

Now consider the Netflix model. A viewer can log in and watch as many of the episodes as they want.  The longer they spend with the show, the more likely they are to get hooked on its narrative. It’s almost like visual chain-smoking and Netflix knows this.

Even putting aside the raw viewer statistics, there is also the buzz factor. Numerous social media posts were issued this weekend all with some variation of “Meant to do something productive but ended up binge watching House of Cards all weekend.” By and large these were not paid advertisements by Netflix; these were viewers accidentally providing the best advertising possible, the modern hyperspeed version of “word-of-mouth.” How many friends and followers saw those social media posts and thought “Yeah, I really should give that show a chance…I hear it’s good.”

It’s almost like visual chain-smoking and Netflix knows this.

Consider the way AMC’s “Breaking Bad” was able to massively boost ratings in its last half season, largely on the backs of viewers binge watching the first 4.5 seasons during the hiatus. “Game of Thrones” similarly got a massive second-season boost from viewers who had binged on the first season.

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Perhaps the biggest winner is the consumer--as the traditional methods of content delivery continue to evolve, viewers can now watch what they want, when they want it.

There is a tendency to assume that the structures that are currently in place will remain in place forever, but the dawn of the Internet age has seen those ideas challenged to the point of irrelevance. People in the ‘60s probably assumed that there would always be travel agents and bank tellers; in the ‘90s we thought Blockbuster video would rule the world. But things change.

One of the debates of the ‘90s in media studies was the argument that film, meaning a 90 to 180-minute piece of content, shot on film stock and displayed via a projector in a dark room full of other people, was an inherently superior form of art to television. 

When consumers have the option to watch content on platforms as small as smart phones or as large as projection screens, the idea that one method of viewing video content in some way trumps another is ludicrous.

This seems ridiculous, but arguments like this permeate the Internet. Is reading a magazine superior to reading an article online?  Can a video game really tell a story? And of course the old war horse of media snobbery, “Well, I only read books.” Now, when consumers have the option to watch content on platforms as small as smart phones or as large as projection screens, the idea that one method of viewing video content in some way trumps another is ludicrous.

What the modern media landscape has taught us is that these arguments are not the point. All of these statements are about the medium in which a narrative is delivered. Once upon a time, when the printing press was at the forefront of technology, there were plenty of people screaming that reading Cervantes was rotting the kid’s brains. The plays of Shakespeare were performed at the same venue where people poked at bears chained to a post for entertainment. But a fondness for “the way things have always been” is historically the biggest obstacle toward progress.

The current media landscape (or at least the one we are in the process of shedding) was really codified in the 1940s and ‘50s. The idea that a funny TV show is 30 minutes, a serious one 60 minutes, a funny movie is around 90 and a serious one is over 120 but less than 200 are all conventions based on what worked in a different time. Prior to the 1940s, movies could be very long and feature intermissions (“Gone with the Wind” for instance, at 238 minutes, has an intermission). The standard two-hour length was a combination of attention span of audiences and the scheduling needs of the movie theaters. In addition to testing the patience of the audiences, longer movies meant fewer daily showings for the same ticket price and overall less revenue for the theater and ultimately the studio.

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Similarly, television run times largely came about in order to maintain a broadcast schedule so that viewers would know when programs were on, and advertisers could have readymade advertising units to fill. But in a scenario where content can be selected from a wide menu and stopped and started at the leisure of the consumer, program lengths and viewing schedules are entirely arbitrary and frankly unnecessary.

Put another way…is “House of Cards” actually a show with 13 individual episodes or a 13-hour movie broken up into chapters?

(As an anecdotal example, our 23-year-old producer had a good laugh at me for stating that once upon a time I used to refuse to go out on Tuesday nights, because this was “Buffy Night.” Granted, some of his laughter was due to the fact that what I was staying in to watch something called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but mostly it was because I had an appointment to watch a television program….I tried to explain that I did have the option of programming my VCR, but that only made things worse.)

Put another way…is “House of Cards” actually a show with 13 individual episodes or a 13-hour movie broken up into chapters?  Shows like the Sundance Channel’s “Top of the Lake” or HBO’s “True Detective” further blur these lines. “Top of the Lake” was entirely co-written and directed by acclaimed director Jane Campion and was shown in its entirety at the Sundance festival as if it was an especially long film. “True Detective” is written by one author and directed by one director, again, as if it were a cohesive work and not a thematically linked anthology.

And there is no reason to think that this same type of blurring won’t occur in terms of run time. Content creators on the wild west of YouTube have shown that works of comedic brilliance or deep profundity can be done in 10-minute bursts.

In much the same way that the “album” is not the same force in music that it was in the pre-digital era, the idea of the “Movie” or “Show” is becoming less and less important.  What’s important is that it is content, it is addictive and it is available when you want it.

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Product Director at The Fiscal Times, Josh Herr also writes about the business of sports, culture, entertainment and music.