Tuesday, March 19, 2013

House of Cards and the future of "television"

There's a lot of concepts swirling through my head right now, so forgive me if this post comes off as a little disjointed. This post is mainly predicated by Netflix's House of Cards, the first season of which I just finished viewing. But before we get into all of that, let's talk a little bit about television.

As you may have heard, NBC recently came in fifth place for the month of February among the Big-Four networks. Yes, you read that right. There are four major American TV networks – NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox – and NBC managed to rank in fifth place behind the Spanish-language channel Univision.

Just how bad were NBC's ratings? To paint another picture, TV prognosticators were all but besides themselves with glee reporting that the Feb 10 episode of AMC's Talking Dead – an after-hours talk show dedicated to vivisecting AMC's The Walking Dead, which immediately precedes it – had posted a higher rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic than ANYTHING aired by NBC during the ENTIRE month of February. I apologize for using all-caps like some twitterpated teenager but I just want to emphasize, a cable-network by-product bested everything aired on America's oldest broadcast network for an entire month.

Strange times indeed.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with House of Cards? For several years, Netflix has been toying with the idea of original programming and on February 1 it unleashed the first of its planned army to the world. But not content to merely challenge mainstream television on a creative level, Netflix decided to throw a wrench into the entire way that we view serial programming by releasing all 13 episodes of the first season at once, allowing intrigued viewers to feast upon its creation to their heart's content.

Many people "binge-viewed" House of Cards in a single sitting. Others, like myself, attempted to ration out the series over a period of time only to become hooked and wrap the whole affair up in a week or so. Others still have yet to see it, the series bobbing somewhere in their instant queue between season 3 of The Wire and old episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba.

The problem, if it can be called that, is that once you've watched House of Cards you can't really talk about it simply because you don't know who has seen it and if so, how much. I'm not the first person to make this observation. Smarter writers than me at considerably more reputable websites like Vulture or The New York Times have already weighed in on the frustration you can feel by holding an opinion of House of Cards in your hand but not being able to share it with anyone.

Compare that to mainstream television that unfolds in real time week-by-week over twitter and Facebook, as viewers across the nation weigh in and pick apart every aspect of what they've just seen. Even for the lazy who pick up last week's ep on DVR or Hulu are still aware that a new episode has dropped into the pop culture landscape and that they had best be careful navigating the internet where spoilers and analysis abound.

Whether you choose to view an episode live or postpone it indefinitely, you – and national conversation – are still subject to the scheduling structure of the weekly broadcast format.

An example? Pick a number between one and thirteen and google "Girls episode X" and you will find a veritable host of results where layman and critic alike argue, mere minutes after airtime, whether that particular hour of television was the worst or greatest thing ever produced for the small screen. In comparison, if you try to find an analysis of House of Cards' Chapter 12 you'll likely get little more than the episode's IMDB listing and a few posts like this about how annoying it is to not find anything online about House of Cards and critics wondering what they can and can not spoil. I know, I tried.

This is neither a good or bad thing, but it represents a momentous shift in the way a TV show interacts with and delivers itself to an audience. There are a score of examples where show-runners have switched plot course midstream in response to viewer reaction – think Nicki and Paulo from Lost, in which a due were so despised by fans that their characters were mercilessly buried alive to appease the angry gods of viewer contempt.

Had we been watching House of Cards along the course of production, chiming in with our bits and bobs for any given week, is it possible that [Spoiler Alert] one of the most enjoyable characters in the show would have been spared his fate in episode 11? I don't know. I'd like to think so, because I really wish he was still around. [/End Spoiler Alert]

On the other hand, you could argue that insulating yourself from viewer opinion is a boon to the show-runner's creative intent. Instead of cow-towing to the demands of an admittedly unreliable marketplace, a creative team under the Netflix model can tell the story they want to tell and make it available as-is, viewer's opinions be damned! It's a refreshing notion that I would argue lends itself to a higher caliber of creative quality. America, after all, loves crap, which is why the cookie-cutter crime procedurals on CBS live forever while Community will likely never reach the syndication-friendly threshold of 100 episodes.

So what does all of this mean for the future of TV? It's hard to say. Netflix, so far, has played coy about releasing concrete viewership numbers for House of Cards and even if they did, the viewing format is not based on advertising like other delivery models. You can't point to the show and say "House of Cards resulted in X number of new Netlix subscriptions" so how can we measure if the model was truly a success? Or a failure?

But we can observe the national discussion. As internet-based services like Hulu, digital-recording programs like DVR, at-home DVD viewing, and the repeat scheduling of cable pay-chanells erode the notion of "appointment television" and make traditional Nielsen ratings near-obsolete in gauging what people are actually watching, it is not hard to imagine a world where TV shows skip the TV altogether,  and are instead made available in one form or another to be devoured and enjoyed at an individual's leisure. If that is the future, then Netflix and House of Cards may be patient zero in the epidemic that consumes broadcast television once and for all.

As for the actual quality of House of Cards, it's undeniably superior to the majority of option currently on television. I personally found the at-camera exposition engaging, adding valuable insight of character while also snapping you back into attention without becoming cloying or contrite. The performances are electric, all of them really, but particularly Spacey, Wright and the under-rated rising star Corey Stoll.

I honestly can't say enough about Stoll, if you're not familiar with him yet watch this clip immediately, but forgive the poor audio quality. Better yet would be to simply go out right now and get a copy of Midnight in Paris.

But I digress. House of Cards starts splendidly, peaks in the middle and then diminishes somewhat toward the end. After 13 hours of crisp, biting political intrigue and machinations, the cliffhanger ending feels somewhat anti-climactic and almost deceptive of your patience. That said, I remain as hooked as I ever was and look forward to picking right back up where it left of when the next 13 chapters drop out of the Netflix sky.

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