What House of Cards means for the Future of Television
I’m a little late to the discussion, but I wanted to make sure I gave this topic the thought it deserved. Two weeks back, I - like many others - shotgunned House of Cards over the course of a couple days. I’d come down with some sort of ebola-esque virus, rendering me unable to do much outside of consuming massive quantities of over-the-counter medication and equally massive quantities of Netflix. Thus, in a perfect storm of “why the fuck not” I decided to devote what little energy I had to seeing whether House of Cards was really all Netflix professed it to be.
Here’s the short answer: Yes, House of Cards may well be the most important and influential piece of content this year - but for many reasons that I hadn’t predicted. While it’s very existence was enough to make it interesting from a business perspective, there were certain aspects of its execution that really pushed it beyond curiosity and into importance. No, I’m not talking about the oft-cited breaking of the fourth wall (which you either buy into early or spent the remaining 12 hours or so hating everything about) but rather, certain other aspects of the final product turned out to be significant game-changers for both the creative and business models of television as a whole - and the implications are staggering.
Let’s break it down:
- The consistency of quality and polish.
Even the highest quality dramatic TV show has to deal with certain realities as part of a TV production schedule. It’s just part of being distributed on television, and every show has to deal with the ramifications.
To be more explicit, with any season of dramatic television (and this is more applicable to dramas, but comedies aren’t immune) there’s more time spent on the first episode of the season than there is on the seventh. When you’re dealing with 10, 13 or 22 weeks between the first and last episodes of the season, you’re shooting or even writing some while others are airing. By the time you get to the end, you’re behind schedule, overspent, plotlines have been abandoned or hand-waved away for convenience, and you’re barely scraping by on a week to week basis. Accordingly, episodes shot at the beginning of production usually have a higher level of noticeable quality than episodes shot in the middle or near the end of the crunch where time and money become tight (with the possible exception of the season finale - but even that’s not immune.) Sometimes it’s more obvious and sometimes less, but it’s almost always there if you look for it.
Except House of Cards.
House of Cards has a consistency to the quality and polish that’s maintained throughout the entire season unlike any series I’ve ever seen. There’s no bottle episode in the middle to save money, no structural issues around the rushed seventh episode, no drop off at all between the first, last, and middle episodes. I didn’t expect to notice it as much as I did, but by episode five that level of polish made going back to the midseasons of other shows I was watching feel…almost painful. It was so apparent that the same level of care, time, and money weren’t being spent on episodes one and seven elsewhere. How could it be, when for the majority of television, certain times of the year require an elevated audience and therefore an elevated sense of priority? But comparing episodes one and six or nine of HoC was easy - they were identical in terms of their polish and adherence to the master plan. It was…startling.
- It didn’t have the episodic ups and downs of TV.
Much has been made about the “batch viewing” experience that I consider the default state of modern television. The reality is that it’s not just possible, but should be expected that your audience will sit down and shotgun a series in a matter of days. What became apparent throughout watching HoC though is that by being designed to take advantage of this default “batch viewing” state of consumption, House of Cards also avoids one of the primary pain points of the television experience. Yes, I’m talking about advertising, but it goes a lot further than that.
There’s an interesting byproduct of making content for on-demand batch-viewing: when you remove the commercials during the development stage, you also remove the requirement of an end-of-act climax. Without the necessity of selling soap every 5-7 minutes, there’s no need to manufacture those end-of-act moments that involve hoards of violins, shocked expressions in close-up, cutting to black and (in the case of batch viewing) an immediate and often unsatisfying resolution.
And it’s so. Much. Better.
Don’t get me wrong, acts need to end, but alleviated of commercial breaks, HoC feels more fluid and the tension remains elevated at all times. Episodes have their own ebb and flow of emotion, acts break when the story requires, and smaller moments can be highlighted in ways that would otherwise be overshadowed by those loud and splashy end of act breaks. By changing from the expected “primary” business model of as-supported television consumption, and moving to this new default, House of Cards has a different manner of creating and resolving tension that feels more natural and less obviously artificial. This also lends itself to a creative and editing process whereupon every scene can be as long or as short as it needs to be, and no more. Which leads us to-
- I have no idea how long each episode was.
Up until this point, most of these comments could be equally valid for many HBO series, (and indeed the best comparison I have for House of Cards is actually The Wire.) However, this next point really stuck with me. Most TV shows have to deal with the reality that even if you’re watching now, the episode will end and they’ll have to coax you back again sometime in the future. Hence: cliffhangers, end of episode revelations, and those various “whaaaaaat?” moments that have come to define modern television.
With House of Cards, you stopped expecting an end-of-episode resolution, as each episode was expected to be a small part of a larger whole. There was no fear of having one episode’s watercooler discussion or lack of resolution lead to a viewer drop-off a week later. Within that freedom, each episode tackled what it needed or wanted to, and no more or less. Consequently, each episode had a natural flow to it where I never once glanced at a clock or paused the playback to find out how long I had left this episode.
With House of Cards, I’ve no doubt that some episodes were longer or shorter than others, and I didn’t always get all the answers I wanted right away, but since the next episode was designed to be just a click (or a twenty-second wait) away, they were free to make each as long or short as it needed to be without concerning themselves with hitting the exact amount of time needed to sell the aforementioned soap. More importantly, a lack of a revelation wasn’t the end of the world (or your viewership) because it could very well be right around the frictionless corner.
Most importantly, HoUse of Cards feels tight. Nothing unneccesary made the final cut. I expect that some episodes were shorter than shot because some scenes were deemed redundant or insufficient, whereas generally a show doesn’t have the option of coming in four to seven minutes long or short on any given episode. No characters or plotpoints had to be dropped due to actor unavailability or the writer’s room deciding later that it just wasn’t as interesting as intended. Each episode felt like a part of a complete whole. The end result of all of this was-
- It made other TV feel cheap and manipulative.
I intimated this before, but I’ll say it outright here - House of Cards made everything else feel slightly worse in comparison. Spending two days with it pulled back the curtain on the rest of what I was watching and made it feel cheap, manipulative, and to a certain degree insulting. And yes I’m aware of the irony in disparaging a storytelling medium for being manipulative when it’s inherently about manipulating viewers’ emotions, but the reality is that even shows I loved beforehand have this sheen of blatant obviousness about them now.
I’ve since rewatched my favorite season of Justified and The West Wing, just to see if the feeling persisted, and I can’t help but notice where the content or viewer experience was deprioritized due to the realities of the business or distribution models. Each was more transparently manipulative in ways that didn’t feel as enjoyable as they were beforehand. Red herrings and certain plot points didn’t feel like part of the journey, but more like cheap thrills to encourage me to pay attention. Abandoned storylines stuck out like cold sores. Marketing moments felt more obvious. In fact, the only place that this didn’t apply was The Wire, though that show always struck me as underfunded for its aspirations anyway. And while I still consider The Wire to be a superior television series, it still made me notice some of the glaring flaws in comparison.
House of Cards demanded my attention because of the content and the characters, not because of a commercial break cliffhanger whose implications were severely overblown in the name of “please dear god come back to us.” The small moments held more importance and were never overshadowed by the larger moments - each had room to breathe when and where they were needed, and each held equal importance. The bottom line is that it made each of those vaunted seasons I’d held so dear seem a bit fatter, slower, more meandering, and more filled with pointless minutiae.
Which reminded me that-
- It’s not TV, it’s BBC - or is it just marketing?
There’s an interesting question I’ve yet to answer, which is “is this because of the model itself or because of the geneology of the project?” For those unaware, House of Cards was a BBC show some years back, following the typical BBC model of 60 minute episodes, no commercials, and a smaller number of episodes to a series. It’s common for BBC series to be developed specifically to run for a couple seasons, or even to just be greenlit for a single season (to the BBC, “miniseries” is just “normal television.”)
There’s no need to leave wiggle room for “what happens if it’s popular longer than we expect” or “what happens if we want to bring back this character” or “what happens if we get picked up for the back nine.” It’s simply greenlit for a set period of time, and airs as such. House of Cards was greenlit for two seasons of 13 episodes let them know, as David Fincher put it, “know exactly where we are going.”
Now I don’t know what the production of BBC series is like - whether they’re shot ahead of time or continue in production during airing - but I do think there’s another element that needs to be discussed as well: marketing. Because of that commitment to 26 episodes and that batch-viewing distribution schedule, the entirety of the series had to be finished before it aired. This is a more important point that might first be realized, because it changes everything about how television is marketed.
Because of the necessity of having every episode completed at launch, all marketing had to be done with a much more complete level of final product, and that product had a much more flexible production and launch window. In short, marketing worked behind the finished product, not ahead of the production, and therefore the production itself inherently guided creative.
This doesn’t happen anywhere else - not at HBO, not at BBC - the fact that their shows air over a period of one or more months means that the product is in a less complete state when marketing begins their process, and that production and postproduction schedules have a hard and delineated point of no return. Episode one is done, episode four is mostly done, and episode nine is a mess that everyone hopes will be done on time - it’s just how it is.
The bottom line is that House of Cards changes the entire landscape of television - to say nothing of it proving that some of the best television doesn’t have to be viewed on television at all. What I expect started out as an HBO-inspired negotiating tactic for content deal renewals (“We don’t need your overvalued content, we make our own content now!”) has shown a lot of cracks in the traditional entertainment facade.
By no means was their success assured either. If the show had gotten panned, Netflix was in a world of hurt for their next round of content negotiations due to lack of enticing options. But in a world where piracy can be honestly said to offer a better user experience than “legal” viewing, the only other logical argument was for quality of product. House of Cards nailed both of those aspects like no television series before, offering a better experience than traditional television and equal - if not greater - quality of product.
So Netflix is in a very interesting place to dictate how the medium evolves from both a creative and a business standpoint, and THAT’S the big takeaway from all of this: I think it’s a fair assessment to say that Netflix is now the dominant company driving the evolution of the television industry. Netflix has made something that changes all the established rules, and is forcing the established competition to play by the ruleset that Netflix invented - and controls.
They’re now the de-facto leader, but here’s the kicker - one hit wonders come along all the time, so it’s up to Netflix to prove their model wasn’t a fluke, but the new standard-bearer for television as an entertainment medium. Their competition is scared, but if Netflix strikes out a couple times, House of Card’s home run will look a lot less scary and the rest of the television industry can breathe a bit.
So it’ll be hard, but right now the title is theirs to lose. But just imagine if their next show is a hit… And the one after that… Then we’ll look back and say:
“That’s what House of Cards really made - television obsolete.”