The premiere strategy for Netflix’s first homegrown original series “House of Cards” plays into one of the streaming service’s foremost strengths: subscriber control.
“Cards,” which was produced by Media Rights Capital, will officially bow on the streaming platform on Feb. 1, with all 13 episodes of the first season available on its preem date.
Immediate availability of season one in its entirety, as opposed to TV’s traditional weekly episode rollout, en sures that Netflix subs can maintain
the way they’ve always used the platform: watching as many episodes of serialized “Cards” as they want, when they want.
“Right from your first viewing experience with this show, you can watch in as big of bites as you’d like,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Variety . “There’s risk with the linear broadcast model: When you roll out a show over a period of time, there’s a lot of noise and distraction in the marketplace. It creates a more casual relationship with the content.”
“Cards” is arguably the most high-profile original series to bow on digital platforms. Based on a BBC mini of the same name, drama stars Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara and centers around modern political corruption in Washington, D.C. David Fincher helms the first two episodes of the skein, delivering the look of upscale cable dramas. Beau Willimon (“Ides of March”) served as scribe.
Announcement of the “Cards” preem date arrives as auds’ viewing behavior continues to evolve beyond strictly linear programming. Since the advent of streaming sites like Netflix, entire TV seasons and even complete series are available online with the click of a mouse and a low subscription fee. Unlike with televised marathons that require an arduous time investment to watch at a scheduled programming block, binge viewing allows viewers the opportunity to consume TV programs in large chunks at their convenience. Phenomenon is amplified by streaming apps’ availability on computers, smartphones and tablets.
“We actually saw binge viewing behavior a while ago,” said Sarandos. “It started with DVDs. People would get DVDs of their favorite shows and watch them in one or two sittings. So, the behavior was planted on the DVD side. And from the streaming side, we’ve always offered complete seasons.”
Netflix is betting “Cards” will play into binge viewing habits in the same way that licensed programs like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have. “Breaking Bad” recently embodied binge viewing in its most extreme form when 50,000 Netflix subscribers streamed the entire fourth season of “Breaking Bad” in a single day after it went live, according to Sarandos.
Broadcast networks aren’t as conducive to binge viewership given that the number of episodes in a typical broadcast season can sometimes double that of a standard 13-episode cable season. Cable dramas also more often feature serialized plotlines that encourage binge-viewing where subtle plot details are easier to track.
Sarandos sees the non-linear model as a way to dodge the “high stakes” game that is program timeslots. “[On broadcast television], a lead-in, the timeslot, the show’s marketing… they all become problems and risks in linear. ‘Cards’ doesn’t have the performance pressure that a typical television show does. For me, if people discover ‘House of Cards’ late next year, it’s no more valuable to me than if they start watching on February 1. We are aiming to build a base of lovers of the show, not an enormous tune-in with a giant falloff.”
“Cards” has some precedent on Netflix with “Lilyhammer,” a Norwegian-American TV series that bowed on the streaming service in February after its debut on Norwegian television. For its premiere, Netflix put the full eight-episode season online at once for its North American service. Sarandos said the preem model turned out to be a success.
“Half of the people who streamed one episode of ‘Lillyhammer’ ended up watching two in one sitting,” Sarandos explained. “Some watched all eight episodes in 24 hours. There is a demand for this. People want to take control of when they watch content.”
Viewer data like this has become a powerful guiding tool at the company. Netflix, initially wary about diving into the original series world, saw “Cards” as a bankable opportunity after noting that key “Cards” players like Fincher and Spacey rack up notable subscriber views on Netflix, as did the BBC mini on which it was based. Mathematically speaking, Netflix saw “House of Cards” as a safe-bet entrance into a high-risk game.
“We can also use viewer data to tweak the creative from the pitch,” Sarandos noted. “It can influence casting early on. Certainly when selecting film directors, showrunners and writers, we can first identify the size of the audience and then connect with that audience through the content.”
Netflix made a 26-episode commitment to the series, and production on season two is slated to begin next spring.
“Cards” debut is also timely, arriving right on the heels of the 2013 presidential inauguration on Jan. 21.
“House of Cards” is executive produced by Fincher, Willimon, Joshua Donen, Eric Roth, Spacey, Dana Brunetti, Andrew Davies, Michael Dobbs and John Melfi. Drama is produced by Donen/Fincher/Roth and Trigger Street Prods. in association with Media Rights Capital for Netflix.