In confirming Netflix’s plans for “House of Cards” — its maiden foray into original series — chief content officer Ted Sarandos told the New York Times that because networks have trouble supporting serialized dramas, “We can be the savior to this genre of television.”
Just what TV needs: Another great wired hope.
Now, the Netflix gang might be geniuses — or they could just get lucky in committing to 26 episodes of a series with classy theatrical auspices (David Fincher, Kevin Spacey), no pilot and backing from Media Rights Capital, whose past innovations included a short-lived effort to take over the CW’s Sunday-night lineup (which no longer exists).
There’s good cause for skepticism, however, whenever somebody or something bills itself as a game-changer that’s going to rewrite the TV rule book.
Granted, a lot of the existing rules might be arbitrary, and perhaps dated; still, they’ve hung around this long for a reason, and the great information superhighway is littered with the husks of those who earnestly pledged to find a better way.
The amazing part, in fact, is how quickly people are ready to embrace template-breaking deals, forgetting about similar “We’ll change the system” pronouncements that didn’t pan out so well with the benefit of hindsight. Unlike self-described maverick Sarah Palin’s admonition, the history in these cases has generally been to retreat, not reload.
It was just a couple of years ago, after all, that NBC announced plans to redefine primetime by stripping “The Jay Leno Show” at 10 p.m. Yet despite the highly predictable nature of the results — lower ratings and unhappy affiliates — the network was forced pretty quickly to pull the plug.
Then-NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker also made something of a show at the 2008 NATPE conference — seizing upon the writers strike as a catalyst — by announcing the traditional development cycle was a thing of the past. The upfront presentation was for losers; try an “infront” on for size. Oh, and why waste money producing pilots when you can bet on a few concepts you really like and jump directly to series?
While the Peacock network frequently thumbed its, er, beak at convention under Zucker, it was hardly the first to champion such game-changing strategies. In the early 1990s, for example, Fox announced a “trimester” approach that was supposed to officially mark the end of a September-through-May TV season. It only took another dozen years before Fox legitimately managed to bisect the traditional season, thanks to the January premiere of “American Idol.”
There have been countless false starts toward the holy grail of seamless product integration, such as “CW Now,” a magazine-style program that showcased various sponsors. Lo and behold, such embedded messages only work if you can find enough gullible people to actually sit through the thinly veiled spiels.
MyNetworkTV, meanwhile, caused a stir with its 2006 scheme to translate the formula of Spanish-language telenovelas to English-language TV, producing self-contained serials with titles like “Desire” and “Fashion House” in 13-week, 65-episode cycles. Alas, viewers quickly said “Hasta la vista,” and within a few months the soaps were scrubbed.
Finally, it’s been roughly a decade since the dot-com boom went bust, taking with it a number of promising Web ventures — anyone remember Icebox? — that were birthed with grandiose intentions. Several of them, notably, chatted up the advantages of allowing creative types to distribute their cinematic gems directly to the public, eliminating those pesky network middle men.
Occasionally, someone really does build a better mousetrap, ushering in fundamental change. More often, though, the process is evolutionary and begins with something more basic — like baiting one’s device with a brand of cheese that people (or rats) truly like.
If “House of Cards” doesn’t immediately grab viewers, in other words, and gets toppled like the proverbial you-know-what, will Netflix be so eager to take another plunge into these uncharted waters? Because that’s usually the dividing line between committed media players and dabblers who don’t have the taste for weathering the industry’s high failure rate.
When everyone is fumbling along seeking answers, there’s also something to be said for speaking modestly, because certainty has a way of sounding like arrogance.
All of which raises an interesting question: While waiting for Netflix, YouTube, Google or somebody else to provide the industry’s salvation, who’s going to save the saviors from themselves?