October 20, 2014
Television is finally growing up
For The Herald in the US
Thanks to its online nature, House of Cards is a global portentNEW YORK — Once upon a time — not too long ago — people would wait for a precise evening in the week to watch The Simpsons or The Sopranos; they would not plan on eating out, and they might even invite friends over to share the television ritual. They could spend a whole Sunday in pajamas watching a marathon of Seinfeld or Friends or South Park. And they would wait for the postman to bring them a distinctively red envelope: a DVD with films or series that they would watch and dutifully send back to Netflix through pre-paid postage.
Those days are gone.
Not without a fight, though. People could hear that The Wire or Mad Men or Breaking Bad were wonderful series and then watch old chapters online until they caught up; then, for instance, they would sit in front of the TV set the Sunday of the great finale and cry at finding out what fate had reserved for Walter White.
But those habits were pronounced dead on Friday, February 14, 2014, when Netflix, now a content producer and streaming company, released all 13 episodes of the second season of its original internet-only series House of Cards. By the end of the day, social media was thick with quotes of the wannabe Richard III, Francis Underwood, including one that served as a Valentine Day’s line: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”
David Fincher, director of the series (and the movies The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Fight Club and Seven) said: “The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there is reason to believe they will do it.”
He is right according to Procera Networks, researcher of the broadband market: “There was a four times increase over the first season in the first weekend binge watching in the US -anywhere from 6 to 10 percent of subscribers watched at least one episode of House of Cards, and about 2 percent finished the series over the weekend.” Almost 11 hours of watching. And tweeting the OMG-moments of Underwood (Kevin Spacey): “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted,” or “I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs.”
The average number of episodes watched during the weekend was three for US Netflix subscribers and five in Europe, where the series is adored — particularly in Scandinavia. There, seven to 10 percent of subscribers watched at least one episode and one percent finished the whole 13.
That two percent of US Netflix subscribers represents around 700,000 people. That seems a small figure for such a noisy phenomenon. Only two weeks after the release of the second season, at the Oscar’s ceremony, Spacey was among the chosen few for Ellen DeGeneres’ famous smartphone-promoting selfie. The mainstream media reproduced his tweet as Underwood, “How did I end up back on the edge of the frame? The #Oscars are so overrated,” which mocked the character’s remark after swearing in as Vice President: “One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”
Critics praised the new episodes of the first original Netflix production to win an Emmy and the first online-only web television series to receive a Golden Globe Award (Best Actress, Robin Wright). NPR revealed that China was hooked on House of Cards via Sohu.com after a prominent anti-corruption figure, Wang Qishan, one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, declared he was a fan; Fortune contended that House of Cards has 29 million views in China (2.2 million per episode) while CBS’s Big Bang Theory has 115 million viewers (seven million per episode). Internet was filled with scholarly comparisons between William Shakespeare’s asides (characters that spoke directly to the spectators) and Underwood’s words to the camera that turn the viewer into a friend, or a partner in crime. In Argentina, #CasaDeNaipes tags several images of politicians, businessmen and journalists with Underwood-like one-liners, unfortunately many of them actually uttered.
Thanks to its online nature, House of Cards is a global portent: less a matter of ratings than the ability to reach so many, diverse audiences.
One week after the release, when hype was snowballing, Beau Willimon (former aide to Charles Schumer, Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton, now co-creator of House of Cards) tweeted: “It’s happening, folks. Binge-writing. One down, twelve to go.” Willimon believes that he is working for the future: “TV will not be TV in five years from now,” he said. “Everyone will be streaming.”
However, his show used to be part of the good-old-series bunch. An original BBC creation in 1990, it depicts in four episodes the deeds of Francis Urquhart, chief whip of the Conservative Party who stops at nothing to get revenge because he was not made part of the cabinet in the elections that followed Margaret Thatcher’s tenure. He wants blood — and why not the chair — of Prime Minister Henry Collingridge; he is a quote-machine that left his trademark in actual politics: “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.” Both the UK and the US series are based on the novel House of Cards by Michael Dobbs.
The difference between the UK and the US adaptation is, most visibly, time.
The development of technology like video on demand, digital video recorders and streaming changed the wasteland of US television. Provided that they pay between US$80 and US$110 a month for cable plus DVR plus internet, or US$7.99 for a service like Netflix, or between US$49.99 and US$99.99 for a streaming player like Roku (and no further monthly fees), today people can watch what they want, when they want, and without commercials. There are also free, not exactly legal outlets.
The business model remains unknown. According to Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times), HBO and Netflix reported similar revenues in 2013, US$4.4 and US$4.9 billion; however, even if their subscriber base is almost the same at nearly 30 million people in the US, HBO’s operating profit reached US$1.8 billion, while Netflix’s stood at US$228 million. HBO mother ship, Game of Thrones, has a similar cost to House of Cards: US$60 million. But Netflix pays high costs for technology.
In exchange, the company obtains a lot of information to tailor its products. Netflix knows when its clients play, pause, rewind, and what devices they use. The direct relationship with consumers shows patterns of interest that help content producer to bet on a show and draw up its plot. The downside is that if you see a man like the Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District set a meeting with a troublesome journalist in the Washington DC metro and not at their usual museum, you are likely to presume that she has a high probability of ending scrapped off the rails.
Some critics believe House of Cards is part of a New Golden Age for television. “As accomplished directors, writers, and screen actors turn to television as an outlet,” Rachel Syme wrote in The New Yorker, “we expect to be showered in rich stories and lush worlds, deluged with shows that are both entertaining and dense enough to analyze.” And in his media column for The New York Times, David Carr complained that his magazines and books are piling up untouched while he watches more and more series. “The three-camera sitcom with a laugh track has been replaced by television shows that are much more like books -intricate narratives full of text, subtext and clues.”
Soon the idiot box may no longer be a box, as something is happening right now: it is becoming less of an idiot.