Francis “Frank” Underwood, a House majority whip who plays the Washington game like a chess grand master, is one of the more interesting characters of the current network television season.
But Underwood, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, does not appear on any broadcast or cable TV network. And he does not appear on any TV that is not connected, directly or through a computer or other device, to the Internet.
Underwood is the main character in “House of Cards,” the series that premiered this month on Netflix.
Netflix became famous for its DVD-by-mail service, a business model that upended the retail video rental business. The company then got into the video streaming business. Its subscribers can now choose from a fairly broad array of content, including many old movies and television shows and some popular new ones. The video streaming business is still sorting itself out, with various shows available on free advertising-supported venues, including the TV networks’ own websites, alongside subscription services like Netflix and rental or purchase options on Apple and Amazon. Amazon is also a rising power in streaming content, where it may ultimately challenge Netflix the way Netflix challenged Blockbuster in video rentals.
Both video rental and streaming are distribution businesses. The real power, as cable TV providers have long understood, is in owning the content that is being distributed. Cable companies regularly lose battles in which they try to hold the line on fees demanded by owners of popular content. This is why cable leaders like Comcast and Time Warner have invested heavily to acquire or develop their own content brands, like NBC and HBO. Just this week, Comcast announced that it is buying out General Electric’s 49 percent interest in NBC, giving Comcast sole ownership of the broadcaster and its cable affiliates, including MSNBC.
“House of Cards” - which is actually an adaptation of a BBC television series from two decades ago - is Netflix’s game-changing answer to HBO and its imitators. The series’ production values, star headliners and writing are on par with the average network or cable drama. It isn’t “Downton Abbey” (for which Amazon recently acquired exclusive streaming rights) or “Homeland” or “Mad Men,” but it certainly holds its own against more pedestrian cable fare like Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” or USA Network’s “Suits.”
These are all shows that my wife and I watch regularly. I have no qualifications as a television critic, apart from the fact that I arguably watch too much television, but I think I am discerning enough to at least appreciate the commercial implications of what Netflix has done, if not the artistic ones.
Netflix has delivered a series that people will pay money to watch. Spacey and Robin Wright, who plays Underwood’s wife Claire, are fine actors who prevent their characters from becoming caricatures of a Washington power couple. Frank and Claire are not sticklers about their marriage vows. They don’t view “monogamy” and “loyalty” interchangeably, and they insist only on the latter from one another. Their marriage is a practical, rather than a romantic, partnership. Yet we believe them when they say they love one another, if only because each understands the other thoroughly and accepts him or her unconditionally.
Kate Mara, who has many acting credits but is less famous than her sister Rooney, gets a breakthrough role as a young journalist who finds that her principles are more flexible than her ambitions. Gerald McRaney, recently seen on “Mike & Molly” as Mike Biggs’ overbearing police captain boss, is an entertaining actor and a familiar face. The rest of the cast is able, and the writing and directing are generally up to par, though it struck me that Mara’s character bounces too readily from naïve ingénue to Underwood’s Machiavellian collaborator and disciple.
So Netflix delivered a television series worthy of the name. But it isn’t just the airwaves or the cable channels that are missing. In the absence of TV ratings, how do we - or Netflix - know whether “House of Cards” is a hit? Netflix will have to mine its copious data, from how many of its viewers streamed the series, to how many made it all the way to the last episode, to how many new subscribers signed up and then tuned their browsers to the show.
Like HBO, Showtime or other premium cable channels, Netflix needs paying subscribers to survive. HBO started its life as a purveyor of films that had previously been in theaters - just as Netflix did two decades later. HBO moved into the content-production business with breakout hits like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” Now Netflix is trying to follow suit. But HBO still relies on cable for distribution; Netflix can work on anybody’s bandwidth.
Google’s YouTube and Amazon’s Prime streaming service are just as much Netflix’s competitors as the cable or broadcast networks are. The three streaming services together, in fact, may pose a bigger threat to the old TV model than they currently do to one another.
Another glimpse of the future recently came from “Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome,” a prequel to the Syfy channel’s cable hit, which first aired nearly nine years ago. “Blood and Chrome” was released as a 10-part series on the Internet via YouTube, which still carries it, but it also ran in as a single movie-length feature on Syfy.
Besides viewers, the biggest winners in this new world may be the actors, writers, producers and other creative folks who bring us our entertainment. For half a century their work lived, or died, at the behest of a handful of network executives. Now they have an increasing array of methods for bringing their creations to our screens. All they need is a sponsor to underwrite the production and a website to host it.
It is going to take time to work out the economics of the new business model, but the implications are clear. Networks as we knew them, in the era of limited bandwidth that we used to call spectrum, are going to go the way of the evening paper. Content is king, and content will find its own way to reach us.