I recently watched the entire first season of House of Cards, Netflix's first foray into original programming. All-in-all, it was pretty solid. The plot is full of twists and turns and it does an excellent job capturing the inane bureaucratic non-sense of Washington while still keeping the audience engaged.
Now, while I recommend that anyone with an interest in politics watches the show, this post isn't about that. It's about the future of television programming.
Let's be clear. What Netflix has done with House of Cards is radical. On February 1st, it didn't just release an episode of the show. It released the entire first season. An entire season of original programming with major star power released on a single day. Is this the future of television programming? Let's speculate.
People have been speculating about the death of traditional television for some time now. The advent and proliferation of DVRs, now in 40% of American households, has been crushing ratings for years. And as ratings go, advertisement dollars follow. And new innovations in DVR technology, like Dish Network's "Hopper", let viewers automatically skip commercials without having to fast-forward (as with traditional digital video recorders.)
Traditional networks are getting hammered. For instance, NBC's entire new slate of dramas are unmitigated disasters in the ratings. And there are no real fixes.
At this point, it seems that people tune in to watch five kinds of events live:
1.) Sporting Events
2.) Major Political Events (i.e. elections)
3.) Reality Television / Competitions (i.e. The Voice)
4.) Extremely high quality original programs (i.e. Mad Men, The Walking Dead)
5.) Original programming on CBS (which is simply baffling)
Sporting Events, namely the NFL, are far and away the hottest commodity in television. ESPN pays almost $2 billion annually to broadcast Monday Night Football. Frankly, the price they pay is starting to seep into the broadcasts because the games take 4 hours and are loaded to the brim with ads. "Football Night in America," NBC's ludicrously named Sunday Night Football program pulls in monster ratings and is consistently the highest rated TV show on Sunday nights. The point is, show popular sports and people will tune in...and they'll tune in live.
Major political events are in a similar vein as sporting events. Only, they don't draw nearly as big and audience and they don't happen nearly as frequently. That said, when major elections take place, people tune in to watch. Poor old NBC actually won the ratings battle on Election Night 2012.
Reality Television in its current form began with Survivor and exploded after the Writers went on strike during 2007-2008. It's cheap and easy to produce and delivers a decent ROI with minimal investment. While it's dumbing down television through shows like "Honey Boo Boo," "Pawn Stars," and (of course) "Hardcore Pawn," it works from a financial perspective. Entire channels are more or less devoted to reality programming, TLC (formerly The Learning Channel) and its niche-channel competition are loaded with reality programming. It's working for them now, but how long until we've drained the swamp of every workable reality idea? It's one thing to watch a show like American Idol, it's another thing when The Weather Channel starts running reality shows.
Shows like Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Suits, and Breaking Bad represent the best TV has to offer. By airing on basic cable, they don't face the same hurdles in terms of ratings as traditional networks. AMC, FX, and USA pull in royalties from cable providers, allowing them to focus on crafting high quality television. In turn, show runners with truly creative minds can allow for a slow burn. There isn't a serious fear of having a new show cancelled after an episode or two. This lack of a sole focus on ratings has counterintuitively led to very solid ratings. The Walking Dead's recent premiere shattered previous cable ratings and beat traditional networks, including American Idol for the night. Basic cable networks are stepping into territory occupied by subscription-based powerhouses like HBO and Showtime. And they're doing a damn good job.
Lastly, CBS' original programming continues to dominate the ratings. NCIS, tv's number one rated show, is mind-numbingly awful. There is, however, one explanation for their ratings success. The age of their audience. As of last fall, the average CBS viewer was 57 years old. Let's face it, folks, older people aren't as sharp when it comes to technology. That, and it's a helluva lot more likely that your old man is going to be at home when a new episode of "Mike and Molly" comes on.
So, where does Netflix fit into all of this? I believe that Netflix sees itself as the next logical step for Category 4. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, has himself said that he wants Netflix to become the next-generation HBO. Hastings' stated goal is to release five new shows a year. While HBO is slow to release a streaming-only subscription option, Netflix is moving to dominate the market. House of Cards is the first foray into its journey to become HBO 2.0, and it's an excellent one.
So, what does the future hold? Netflix is obviously in a fantastic position to lead a new generation of hybrid content providers with its vast assortment of on-demand movies and TV shows and massive existing subscriber base. But, is the idea of a weekly episodic TV show on the way out? Is the future really based in single day season dumps? Think of the inherent risks in that. What if the show is a flop? You're signing up for a large investment for something that may or may not lead to long-term subscribers. With HBO, they're at least guaranteed that you'll stick around for a few months to finish watching a season of True Blood or Veep.
And from a viewer's perspective, is it really optimal to bang out new episodes over the course of a few days instead of a couple months? I'm not sure it is. When I think about some of the best viewing experiences I've had, I think of shows like Lost. The speculation in-between episodes was part of what made that show so great. With House of Cards, there is no speculation, you simply hit play on the next episode in the series.
Lastly, what does Netflix's strategy mean for TV in general? Are we going to see basic cable channels continue to dominate and then slowly shift into online platforms? I know I'd pay money to watch Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad online. Hell, I'd even be ok watching commercials if it meant I could watch the shows whenever I wanted to. What of the rest of TV? Will we eventually reach a point where all we're left with is sporting events, news coverage, and reality programming?
People want to cheer the demise of broadcast television in the same way that people cheered the rise of digital music downloads. There is a view that TV will eventually move to an "a la carte" format, where you pay for what you want and that's that. I'm just not sure that this will ever completely happen. Without the cable subscription format, channels like AMC would never have been able to invest in a show like Mad Men. I think what we will see, however, is a great contraction in the number of channels available on cable. There is simply no need for a vast number of duplicative channels that can only exist thanks to cable subsidies. Do we really need TLC, HGTV, and the DIY channel? Why watch someone repair a sink on DIY when you can do the same thing on YouTube? It will take time, and cable companies and network executives will fight it tooth and nail, but there is nothing they can do about it.
The future, as I see it, combines subscription streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go, with a select group of high-quality channels, like FX, AMC, TNT, with room for networks that broadcast some combination of news, sports, and original programming. How we get there will be messy and interesting to watch. In the long run one thing seems certain, the viewers will benefit.