Netflix's 'House of Cards' seeks to redefine television

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the new Netflix series "House of Cards."

Netflix is premiering its first original program today, “House of Cards,” a political drama starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher ("The Social Netork," "Fight Club"). Netflix outbid HBO for the series and spent $100 million to produce it.   

But to understand all the fuss around "House of Cards" you have to go back to "The Sopranos," which was one of the most successful cable shows in history. With it, HBO took on network TV and proved that if you produce “high-quality shows” you didn’t need ads -- people will pay to watch.

"This is potentially seminal moments when Netflix took on television," says Brad Adgate, a TV analyst at Horizon Media.

Adgate adds that if "House of Cards" is a big hit,  it would establish Netflix as a sort of online television network. But Netflix isn’t just looking to compete with the likes of HBO. It also wants to upend the way TV shows are distributed. Instead of releasing a new episode every week, the streaming service is giving subscribers the entire season of “House of Cards” all at once.

Joris Evers, a spokesman at Netflix, said CEO Reed Hastings believes the traditional TV model doesn’t reflect modern viewing habits.

"As Reed Hastings wrote, imagine if books were released one chapter per week," Evers said. But suddenly somebody flips a switch and you can read the whole book at your own pace. "That’s the future of television and that’s what we call Internet TV."

Andrew Wallenstein, the TV editor for “Variety,” says Netflix might be leaving too much of the past behind.  Wallenstein says a weekly shows insure that subscribers stick around for more than a month. And they also creates buzz. "That’s water cooler for so many months and those kinds of conversations, any marketer will tell you is the best promotion of all," he says.

Evers says Netflix is keeping subscribers on the hook by releasing five new shows this year, including a comedy with Ricky Gervais,  the creator of "The Office," and a new season of the critically acclaimed comedy “Arrested Development.” It’s starting by making the first episode of “House of Cards” available for free to anyone for the next month.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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