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Netflix Builds a 'House of Cards' That Could Knock Down the Networks

by Maureen Ryan, posted Mar 18th 2011 3:15PM
Netflix made it official today: The company has ordered its first original television series.

Netflix has commissioned 26 episodes of a television series called 'House of Cards,' which will star Kevin Spacey and be executive produced by director David Fincher. According to a Friday press release, you'll be able to put 'House of Cards' in your Netflix queue in late 2012.

Netflix going from content-delivery system to a content-creation company raises a lot of questions in my mind, but the primary one is this: Won't this lead to a lot of studios taking their shows and movies off Netflix at some point?

I can't imagine they're too happy about facing competition from a company they'd essentially viewed as a pipeline into people's homes.

As many media reporters have noted, the companies that do business with Netflix sure like cashing the company's checks. But it isn't the only game in town, and many firms, most notably Time Warner, had already begun looking askance at Netflix, which has moved aggressively into the streaming realm. Analysts have said that when certain Netflix deals come up for renegotiation, the company may well have to pay a lot more than it has in the past for the rights to the shows and movies in its large video library.

Now that Netflix is going to directly compete with the studios, I'm wondering if some studios will let those deals lapse entirely. "You're going to compete on our playing field?" I can picture them saying. "Fine, we're going to pick up our ball and go home."

The fact is, if 'House of Cards' is a success (and that's a big if), Netflix may present an even bigger threat than it is now. The threat Netflix poses now -- and it's a considerable one -- is something I call the "Enough Stuff" scenario.

I don't know about you, but I've almost stopped buying individual seasons of TV shows on DVD. When a classic show comes out as a complete series on DVD, sure, I'll pick it up -- if it's on sale. The bottom line is, as is the case with most consumers, what I expect to pay for media isn't what I expected to pay a few years ago. The fact that we're all pickier now that so much is available for free online or for the price of a Netflix subscription has led to a freefall in DVD sales, which for years delivered a steady supply of cash to the big media companies.

I'm not ready to cut the cord (we currently have satellite TV, so there's no cable cord to cut, but you know what I mean), but apparently many other people have done that or are poised to just stick with online offerings, Amazon/iTunes purchases and Netflix. Why? Because there's Enough Stuff there.

Is what I can find there exactly the stuff I want to watch that particular minute? Not always, but I love browsing through Netflix's offerings and finding old favorites and checking out ongoing shows I've never watched. As a family, we've watched the '80s BBC version of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy' and tons of 'Doctor Who,' and on my own, I've indulged my new-ish 'Bones' jones and watched more 'Better Off Ted' than is probably legally allowed.

We're used to media pundits saying that we live in an on-demand culture -- but I don't think we're that demanding, not when presented with a lot of options. What Netflix has shown us is that we're turning into a "what's on" culture. I'll take exactly what I want when I can get it, but otherwise, I don't mind grazing. There's Enough Stuff on Netflix and Hulu and on my DVR that I'll be able to find something worth my time. That something may not be a show that has aired on the tube in the past 10 years.

I think that kind of thinking has media executives terrified. They're used to people coming to them for a particular show within a particular time frame. Not only are we time-shifting when we consume television, we're priority shifting in terms of what's available. Not everything people want is available every minute of every day, but Enough Stuff is, and we're often fine with that.

So what's a media company to do, whether it's Netflix or ABC or Warner Bros.? Make great stuff. Half the reason I'd never cut the cord is because I really needed to watch 'Spartacus' episodes the night they aired. I really want to watch 'Cougar Town' the night it airs. I'll need to see 'Game of Thrones' in real time. Make something good enough and I'm happy to pay to get my fix as quickly as possible.

That quality issue is the reason the TV networks and studios probably aren't too worried about the Netflix deal just yet. There's no telling whether Fincher's 'House of Cards,' which was already made into a TV show in England in the '90s, will be any good.

Netflix and its partner are allegedly spending $100 million on the series, but big spending doesn't always make for good content (ask the studios that spent a fortune on any number of crappy big-budget movies in recent years). Even HBO, which knows how to make good TV and spends money like it's going out of style, sometimes swings and misses ('John From Cincinnati' was not exactly dirt cheap).

Netflix's partner in the 'House of Cards' deal is Media Rights Capital, which doesn't exactly have HBO's track record. Nothing in their television roster (which you can find here) exactly set the world on fire with its utter brilliance.

The other red flags here? Netflix and MRC are going forward with this project without stopping to make a pilot first, and Fincher's never worked on a scripted drama before. We all like to make fun of TV suits, but sometimes those suits know what they're talking about. Many pilots in TV history have been tweaked quite a bit to make them better -- in some cases, a lot better.

It'll be fascinating to follow the progress of 'House of Cards' and see whether it represents a huge threat to cable and broadcast networks. Maybe, like a house of cards, it'll be a flimsy construction that falls down easily. Or maybe it'll be a solid structure that the studios and networks won't be able to knock down with a huff and a puff.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I can't believe the timing of Margaret Thatcher's death! I stayed up THE ENTIRE NIGHT til 7 a.m. Sunday watching the whole three seasons, each episode in a row, Saturday night, of the British original series "HOUSE OF CARDS" and it has the fake "funeral" of Margaret Thatcher. The main character is always hoping to beat her record of length of time as Prime Minister. God love you, Maggie. I think the less said the better today about you, darlin'. That housing of the Chilean dictator at your house really was the last straw.

April 08 2013 at 8:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As a netflix subscriber and avid television and film watcher- I personally hope this is successful. More competition means producers need to focus on quality. If "House of Cards" is successful Netflix would be in the position to really compel television networks to step up their game... Plus newer artists will have a new gateway into the medium of television...

March 22 2011 at 11:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
steven rendon

hmm i wonder what netflix is really planning on doing with this. With Facebook already signing a contract with Warner Bro. 's to add 3 dollar movies to FB you would think they would try to improved on there movie collection to compete against Facebook

March 22 2011 at 11:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Isn't this show just a remake of the British series "House of cards"? How is it any original?

March 21 2011 at 7:15 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Daniel Sigal

When this news first broke I was immediately excited because I think we may be witnessing the first shot fired in a revolution of what we consider "television" programming, similar to how the networks lost their monopoly on original programming when cable got into the game. I'll be sure to be following closely how Netflix implements this and how successful it is. Mo - this is a great take, not just on the effect it may have on the networks, but on the chance which Netflix is taking by biting the hand that feeds it, which I did not consider at all. Can Netflix transition into a streaming version of HBO?

March 18 2011 at 6:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When Deadline broke this story, I knew it was a big deal since AMC and HBO were among the networks bidding on this show. What I am most curious about is how is this a good deal for Netflix? Are they going to offer it to subscribers as part of its streaming service? How do they recoup the cost of production? Why would people go out and buy the DVDs when they can just stream it or borrow the DVDs from Netflix anyway? HBO makes its money through subscriptions and DVD/Blue Ray sales. Networks make their money off selling advertising (and DVD/Blue Ray sales). Is Netflix planning on increasing the price they charge for monthly subscription? Anyway, I'm all for Netflix jumping in the game. I would completely ditch cable if I could get cable news and a handful of cable channels like HBO through Netflix streaming or some other online service separate from cable.

March 18 2011 at 4:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sareeta's comment

Netflix is probably thinking in terms how, if successful, this could draw more subscribers to their services. If they can create quality telvision along lines of what AMC has been doing then more people might subsribe. I'm just surpsied others haven't tried this. Apple really isn't into creating content, but this seems like something Amazon should have been all over considering they are now in the business of publishing ebooks through their Kindle program.

March 18 2011 at 7:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If the new HOUSE OF CARDS is only going to appear on Netflix, without ever having been aired on any television network, how on earth is it a "television series"?

March 18 2011 at 3:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to KeithC's comment
Mo Ryan

well, presumably some people will watch it on their televisions, though obviously they could watch it on their phones/computers as well.

March 18 2011 at 7:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The British version S1 & S2 were perfect (S3 not as much). There is no reason to re-make them.

March 18 2011 at 3:29 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Purpleslog's comment

It was only a mini-series of four episodes. Are you thinking of The Thick of It or another British show about politicians?

March 19 2011 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to chudleycannonfodder's comment

I'm thinking of the Ian Richardson mini-series. I saw them on PBS. I bought the DVDs used a few years back from Amazon (pre-Netflix).

March 19 2011 at 1:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

No, it was a trilogy: HOUSE OF CARDS, TO PLAY THE KING, and THE FINAL CUT.

March 19 2011 at 1:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down

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