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Netflix's 'House Of Cards' Marks Turning Point In History Of Television

Daniel Rais, Alan Moreno |
March 4, 2013 | 12:19 p.m. PST


Netflix's new series, "House of Cards," may change the future of television. (Screenshot)
Netflix's new series, "House of Cards," may change the future of television. (Screenshot)
The future of television is not, strictly speaking, television. Indeed, if Netflix’s House of Cards is any indication of what’s to come, the future will have less and less broadcast series, and more and more series available on-demand.

In the past few years, the on-demand trend has been steadily growing, and all of us know someone who, at one point or another, has refused to leave their house because they were binge-watching "Breaking Bad." Or "Game of Thrones." Or "The Walking Dead." The truth is, people want to watch the shows they want to watch, when they want to watch them, not at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. on Tuesdays; they want to fit entertainment into their schedules, not the other way around. Similarly, audiences don’t want to wait a week to find out what happens on the next episode of their favorite series. They want to know immediately, and many will watch hours upon hours of their favorite series in one sitting.

"House of Cards" offers viewers exactly that. As long as you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can watch "House of Cards" whenever you want, however many times you want. Released in its 13-episode entirety on February 1, subscribers are free to watch one, two, three, even 13 episodes at a time. And people have done it.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by Wired Magazine on February 4, only three days after the series was released, most viewers said they had watched the whole series in one sitting. Of the nearly 2,000 polled, 32 percent had watched all 13 episodes at once, by far the largest percentage of all the numbers of episodes. The next largest percentage was one episode, coming in at 11 percent.

People aren’t just binge-watching House of Cards because it’s convenient, though. They’re binge watching because it’s good. Really good.

Written by Beau Willimon ("Ides of March"), "House of Cards" is a cold and cynical representation of U.S. politics. Full of betrayal, manipulation, sex, drugs and violence (though not much Rock N’ Roll), the series throws us into a political gladiator match in which there are no heroes. Our protagonists and antagonists are equally immoral and unvirtuous, and we are propelled forward by an instinctual and repulsive thirst for power, a thirst that we cannot ignore. Good and evil are blurred in a haze of ambiguity, and as the show progresses, it is we, the audience, who must struggle with ourselves. Can we root for characters that do such terrible things? Can we even escape it, or are we attracted to them through some primordial link that values power over morals?

From the beginning, "House of Cards" is brilliant in its political critique. Devoting both time and attention to serious issues like corruption (lobbying) and mass manipulation (public relations), the series asks audiences to think critically about the U.S. government and how it operates. Engulfed in a perpetual struggle for power, the politicians in the series trample over and strong-arm each other, challenging us to think about whether our elected officials can be accurately thought of as our representatives.

With these tough questions, "House of Cards" joins series like "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," and "Game of Thrones" in contemporary television’s foray into a more serious, more prestigious, almost cinematic type of entertainment. Traditionally speaking, film has always been considered more prestigious than television in the hierarchy of entertainment, and television actors have always dreamed of making the jump to the silver screen. With series like "House of Cards" popping up, however, this may not be the case for much longer.

In its current form, television offers artists exponentially more time to develop a narrative. Over the course of multiple seasons, TVmakers are painting compelling characters and weaving their storylines in significantly more layered and complex ways than filmmakers could ever hope to. And talented people are jumping on the train.

In the past couple of years, more and more Academy Award-nominated directors have attached their names to television series. Like Martin Scorsese, who directed the pilot episode of HBO’s "Boardwalk Empire," David Fincher ("Fight Club," "The Social Network") brings the talent and expertise of Hollywood’s greatest to "House of Cards," signaling a shift in the paradigms of big-budget entertainment. Gifted big-screen actors want in on the action, too, as evidenced by the performances of Oscar-nominees Don Cheadle ("House of Lies"), William H. Macy ("Shameless"), and Jeremy Irons ("The Borgias") on premium cable series.

Indeed, if the literary equivalent of film is the short story, the literary equivalent of television series is the novel, and both filmmakers and their audiences are starting to realize it.

From an economic standpoint, "House of Cards" represents a groundbreaking experiment through which Netflix hopes to attract more subscribers, and they’re playing their cards close to the chest. Refusing to release official data, top Netflix executives have only given us hints as to how the experiment is paying off. “We’re not doing ratings, [but] we’re thrilled with the numbers,” said Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. “It’s the most watched thing on Netflix in every country we operate in.”

Twitter reactions provide at least one clue as to the series' popularity. “There goes my weekend. Chapter by chapter @HouseofCards,” wrote one user. “If you aren’t watching @HouseofCards with your valentine tonight you are wrong and you two won’t last,” warned another on February 14.

If the series pays off, "House of Cards" may just be the show people remember as the big turning point in on-demand entertainment. Based on the success of "House of Cards," future series will provide audiences with Academy Award-caliber entertainment for the price of a monthly subscription, and streaming services like Hulu and Netflix will become bigger and bigger players in the industry. Ultimately, Hollywood will be hurting the most, for box office sales will yield to monthly subscriptions as talent and audiences alike turn to on-demand entertainment.

A month after its release, the heat around "House of Cards" has cooled a bit, largely because a lot of people have already watched the entire season. Like a good book, though, the series remains there for Netflix subscribers to revisit it whenever they want. If you haven’t watched it, though, don’t waste another minute. Clear your schedule, do what you gotta do, and enjoy. We promise you won’t regret it.


Reach Contributor Daniel Rais here.



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