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'House of Cards' - What Other Stories Could Be Told?

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by Charles Judson
February 4, 2013 6:50 PM
23 Comments
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HOUSE OF CARDS, as most know by now, is Netflix's ambitious $100 million, two season gamble, jumping into scripted programming. In terms of budgeting, the gamble isn't as risky as one thinks if they break it down.

At an average of $3.8 million per episode, that puts CARDS in line with HBO's GAME OF THRONES. It's also notable the episode lengths range from 48 to 52 minutes. A length that is comparable to AMC's MAD MEN. It wouldn't be surprising if CARDS doesn't find a second and third life offline. Increasingly known as the place to binge on a range of TV from the last 50 years, it would further cement Netflix's place in the TV food chain.

The gamble is in releasing all 13 episodes in one shot. No building up of buzz from one episode to the next. No water cooler speculation of who shot who and why. No avoiding of spoilers by anyone that burned through season one.

Business and audience strategy aside, HOUSE OF CARDS is ambitious storytelling. David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings are crafting a show that's not just cynically designed to be binge watched to rack up subscribers and collect audience data, they've truly put the focus on telling a story that can't be resolved in 90 minutes.

Hastings said as much in a quote that was referred to in a CARDs writeup in Ad Age:

"Imagine if books were always released one chapter per week, and were only briefly available to read at 8 p.m. on Thursday," Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in a letter to shareholders last week. "And then someone flipped a switch, suddenly allowing people to enjoy an entire book, all at their own pace. That is the change we are bringing about. That is the future of television."

Broken down as chapters instead of episodes, the producers have followed the path that has made HBO, Showtime and AMC critical darlings.

A consistent, legitimate complaint against network television is that the constraints on ad supported, ratings dependent dramatic storytelling, is that characters disappear and/or are underserved constantly. Dangling plotlines and contradictory arcs can turnoff viewers, turning fans into casual watchers. It only takes one or two episodes with a few major missteps to tune out and move on to another show. Leveraging the strengths of the format, CARDS echoes a comfort with multiple characters and plotlines its peers MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD and GAME OF THRONES have. Characters can remain at the periphery and still be relevant because the creators have time and the space to move them in and out of the story.

Even more important though, it gives the story room to explore broad themes including Money vs. Power, Corporate Influence and Class with depth and specificity (how many other shows could brilliantly use an Education Bill as a plot device as CARDS did?).

CARDS' Machiavellian Francis Underwood, played by Spacey, says early on, "Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that falls apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn't see the difference." This encapsulates the moral complexities and shades the ethical questions at the heart of American politics.

The influence of money on politics has been a primary concern going back centuries. It has been one of the dominant threads of the last 15 years after McCain-Feingold and the emergence of Super PACS.

At critical junctures, CARDS reinforces often that it's not the money that matters, it's what is behind the money that counts. The ability to move chess pieces around and play the long game is the key to power. Which becomes a major turning point in the series, putting Underwood's plans in jeopardy.

As a real world example, once the ballots were counted, the electoral college apportioned, the 2012 election itself quickly moved away from the question of money as a direct influence.

It instead moved to a story about how Obama's machine was much more in tune with the trajectory of the country and electorate, and how out of touch the GOP had become. So blind to their own biases, the GOP didn't dare to deny the inherent truth of their own numbers.

Now Obama is taking that same machine and repurposing it to actively campaign and advocate not for reelection, but for his agenda and philosophy. What the effect on politics will be, no one knows. However, it very much reads like Obama and his team have a better understanding of the world they live in, than the Democrats who were trounced by the GOP in 1994 and floundered in the following years to respond.

Having watched all of CARDS, I ponder less who as a black writer/producer could pull off such a story, than ask what kind of stories would lend themselves to the same treatment. What stories can be told that both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue.

A focus on Black stories has traditionally been more on filling in the gaps of history and representation than using those stories to raise questions and explore the complexity of Black life and life in general.

Imagine a similar take set in current day Liberia or South Africa. Imagine a Shakespearean Richard III take on the career of a Clarence Thomas like figure. It would likely be expensive and a hard sell, but a story using W.E.B. Dubois' split from the NAACP in the 1930s over a nationalistic vs. integrationist approach could be a great lens to delve into present issues with fresh eyes.

Even more ripe to be plucked, I would say, are the 1970s and 1980s. The emergence of Black politicians was a harbinger of great things to come with the passage of historic Civil Rights legislation.

By the 1990s, the results were decidedly mixed, with Black politicos and leaders firmly entrenched in their positions of power and influence, some would be hailed as visionary, others as being no better than those they replaced. From navigating a weak economy in the 1970s, to the election of Reagan, to the crack epidemic, to the rise of a post Civil Rights black middle class, to the failure of some to hand over reigns to--let alone train--a newer generation, the ground is indeed fertile for storytellers to dig in.

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23 Comments

  • elaina | February 12, 2014 8:16 PMReply

    PLEASE STOP PROMOTING HOUSE OF CARDS!!! The British version of House of Cards features Penny Guy as an African American woman in the series. Why did they DELETE her ethnicity from that role??

  • CareyCarey | February 9, 2013 5:21 AMReply

    "when you remove the old model of having to produce six to 22 weekly episodes, many seasons don't actually have a compelling reason to be six to 22 hours. Almost every television season contains a lot of redundancy, or at least repetition, within a season, even totally serialized seasons with no time-outs for standalone stories" [,,,] "An actual re-thinking of TV storytelling may require re-thinking whether some of these stories need to be done in the form of a TV season at all, as opposed to a long movie that tells the same story without all the repetition and re-statement endemic to the episodic TV format. Or maybe we'll have alternate cuts, like the TV and theatrical versions of Scenes From a Marriage - make a 13-episode TV season and also prepare a taut 180-minute version for people who want to experience the same story in a single sitting" [...] "If the story of, say, Homeland season 1 were a movie, it would probably be about 150 minutes" ~ Jaime Weinman

    I opened with those words of wisdom to address the arguments of Miles Ellison and Charles Judson (below).

    Miles' basic argument/question is who would actually watch "those" stories involving black people. That's a standard and valid question that has been debated on several fronts. In support of his statement, he said the Wire's rating were low because it wasn't the kind of entertainment "people" wanted to watch. "If "people" aren't interested in that kind of complexity, it will limit the stories that "people" will try to tell ~ Miles

    Now I don't know who "those people" are that Miles is referring to but I understand the gist of his argument. On the other hand, after reading all of Charles comments, I've come to believe he's coming from a totally different perspective.

    He's not concerned -- in this "debate" -- with the standard arguments of who, when, what and how, his basic fire and desire can be found in a few words. I believe he's saying, lets just concentrate on telling a damn good stories -- first and foremost -- and then let the rest of the chips fall where they may.

    "It would likely be expensive and a hard sell, but...." [...] "stories can be told that both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue." [...] "Lets tell those stories" [...] "Maybe that story never makes it to the big screen, but maybe it becomes a graphic novel, or a series of plays ( or simply just a damn good... well written story that will inspire similar stories and "deeper" conversations). ~ Charles Judson

  • Charles Judson | February 9, 2013 11:29 AM

    First, thanks for posting those points about how seasons are structured from Weinman. That hits on where I think we should be. Is the web series really the way to go? Name me one great web series. Name three. Name me ten.

    There are some really good web series being produced. However, I wouldn't say any of them are great. Even something as popular like THE GUILD falls more on the really good slash really fun side.

    The web series at this stage is still a stepping stone. It's not yet the powerful, influential storytelling device it can be. Television still is king. Till TV writers are jealous of what their web brethren are doing, just like many in film are of TV, web writing is still in its infancy.

    Even when that day arrives, there are still going to be a range of lengths and ways to tell a story. Five minute short to ninety minute film to a six season show, standard three act structure to transmedia and alternate reality game hybrids, the possibilities are only limited by our imagination.

    Second, you've articulated what where my head is at with this piece. I'm interested in something bigger and I believe more important. While the possibilities are limitless. The reality of financing and distribution makes those possibilities coming to fruition finite.

    Some of those barriers have nothing to do with the network or how a system is setup. Those barriers are natural and we have to take those into consideration. Others are wholly the dictates of the people in power and driven by how the system evolved and continues to evolve.

    As storytellers, the natural barriers we need to understand and accept. We have to realize that those barriers are audience driven and require strong stories to overcome. When a show like DO NO HARM premieres to a low 3.3 million viewers for network TV, and drops to 2.18 million, that probably says more about the strength of the premise than just the storytelling alone. When a show like DECEPTION premieres to 5.66 million viewers and drops to 3.08, that's possibly a story/storytelling problem. Or, it could be that more of those 5.66 million liked the show, however, not enough to make it appointment viewing. In either case, it's still up to the writers and producers to create something that will hold those 5.66 million viewers week to week. No amount of marketing or support is going to change that--misleading marketing does turn off viewers, but TV doesn't blur the lines as much as film.

    For argument's sake, let's say DO NO HARM debuted at 3 million viewers and stayed there across an entire season. I'd argue that's storytelling that can hold an audience as well as a series that debuts at 10 million and sustains that.

    The size of the numbers themselves hold more relevance when it comes to the actual economics of keeping a show on the air than it does in justifying why a show should remain on or be canceled. The numbers themselves are not an indication of quality. This is even more so in today's television climate. Audience fragmentation and increased choice has made it impossible for network shows to reach and maintain an audience over 20 million. It's increasingly event and live shows that can pull those numbers. NBC won the ratings/share battle for 2012 with Sunday Night Football. It had an average viewership of 21 million viewers and 12.9 share. Fifteen years ago that top spot would have gone to a FRIENDS or a SEINFELD. We're now in a world where averaging 8 to 14 million viewers is where you want to live, with an average 18-49 share that's as close to 3 as you can get.

    When one approaches it like that, it puts the focus on adjusting the economics of producing a story to match the audience size, and off guessing which changes in the writing will turn a story into an audience magnet. Hollywood plays that game constantly and they lose more often than they win.

    No one really knows if a show works till it comes together, regardless of how strong the writing, cast and producers are. STUDIO 60 by all measures should have been one of the greatest shows of the last 10 years based on pedigree and the reactions to he pilot. It turned out to be an okay show that did everything in its sanctimonious powers to turn away viewers. HEROES wasn't great writing, but it was damn good fun, till they decided to jettison what made the first season watchable fun and overreached in nearly everything they did.

    As you worded it Carey, just tell damn good stories first and foremost. Then figure out how to deliver those stories in a way that makes money and puts bread on the table.

  • Miles Ellison | February 8, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    The question is who would actually watch those other stories involving black people? And can the recent imperative to turn stories about iconic black figures into outright distortions or vehicles for the aggrandizement of white nobodies be eliminated? The Wire was stone-cold genius with 3 dimensional diverse black characters and interesting storytelling. It went virtually unwatched for 5 seasons.

  • Charles Judson | February 9, 2013 1:08 PM

    Is it complexity that turns people off? Or is it the complexity that influences the way they consume TV shows? Is it that people don't want to watch a show like THE WIRE, or is it just not a show they want to, or can, watch right now? If I hadn't watched the first three episodes back to back when HBO did their first catch-up, I'm not sure I would have gotten hooked on the show during the first season. Not at least till someone hipped me to it.

    It's a very dense show and it doesn't matter how smart or informed you are, like a good book, it does take some work to get into it and get grounded in all the plots and characters. That also means it takes time for the show to spread. There's not one episode you can point to and say that's the one to watch to get you hooked. Even THE SOPRANOS by comparison requires much less work to figure out what's going on.

    LOST on the other hand was a savvy mix of character driven stories and mythology. While the overall mystery required close attention, the flashbacks and internal character dynamics didn't make it as difficult to watch a standalone episode. It really only takes a few minutes to suss out that Jack has his head up his a** and root for someone to punch him in the face. It was when they tried to stretch out the story, started raising more questions than they answered, and characters started doing contradictory things, that's when the ratings started to slip. The long breaks in between (likely because ABC was trying to milk LOST for its ratings bumps in the Fall and the Spring sweeps) just compounded the problems.

    Five years after it went off the air, THE WIRE is still one of Amazon's top sellers. It's still generating articles month after month. By now, the total number of people that have seen THE WIRE from season one to season five is more than a few times larger than what it was when it was on the air. Netflix and box sets give shows like THE WIRE an afterlife that syndication could never offer. If TWIN PEAKS had debuted in 2005, we'd possibly be talking about the third season going into production.

    Unlike 20 years ago, mass consumption isn't simultaneous and concentrated into a few shows. It's now asynchronous and spread across hundreds of channels and thousands of options. We definitely have to rethink how we define mass consumption. Out of that, we have to rethink the financial models that produce shows.

    As for LAST RESORT, it's all about the share and the economics. The show started with an 18-49 in the 2s, by the end it was barely hovering above a 1. That can mean as much as a $100k to $150k difference in what ABC can charge per spot. The average drama program is around $1.5 to $3 million to produce per episode. If a show can get around $200 and average 24 spots per show, that's $4.8 million. If that drops to just $150k per spot, that quickly becomes $3.6 million.

    However, you have to take out the spots that go to local affiliates and the networks own promos, and quickly you approach a break even point at best. If the show is produced by a third party, that also means licensing fees, so take another chunk out.

    Then you have to factor in if the show will make it to syndication and if the syndication money will be worth it. If a show wasn't a hit, or had strong demos, then the answer is probably no. It's definitely not worth it if you're sharing the syndication cut with a third party. An in house production makes it slightly more desirable. However, even then, with poor ratings, fewer than a 100 episodes and it just doesn't make much sense.


    Even if LAST RESORT moved to an FX, its low share would require a radical slashing of the budget. Would a $750k LAST RESORT be the same show? Unless it does as well as SONS, which does 2 plus share numbers, there's no incentive to snatch up the show.

    The last thing that's driving this is also the average income of the households. MAD MEN brings in a lot of $100k plus households. Which if you want to bag the big spenders who can commit larger dollar amounts over longer periods, like car companies, you need.

    In the abstract, 7 or 8 million can seem a lot. But, is that 7 or 8 million attracting the advertisers who are willing to pay the bucks that push your network into profitability. Networks aren't making these choices as blindly. My down and dirty math above is nowhere near the level of what they're doing.

  • Miles Ellison | February 9, 2013 12:44 AM

    There are two issues here. The Wire's ratings were low because that wasn't the kind of entertainment people wanted to watch. Basically, it wasn't simple or stereotypical enough to interest a significant audience. That's a matter of taste, certainly. But if people aren't interested in that kind of complexity, it will limit the stories that people will try to tell. The other issue here is the ratings threshold that a network will accept. Mad Men and Breaking Bad aren't killing it in the ratings compared to hit shows on regular broadcast networks, but their ratings are very good for programming on a cable network, and those shows draw discerning audiences that aren't turned off by subtlety and complexity. Recently, ABC aired Last Resort, a show that drew over 5 million viewers. That wasn't enough to keep it from being canceled. To put that number in perspective, that's the same number of viewers that Justified and Sons of Anarchy draw on FX. It's also considerably more people than watch Mad Men or Breaking Bad. Those shows are considered unqualified successes. The Walking Dead, even though it has blockbuster ratings for a cable show, would probably be canceled if it was on a broadcast network. Even The Wire stayed on for 5 seasons despite low ratings, because HBO wanted the subscribers that would appreciate that kind of entertainment. Essentially, a big part of this issue is revising ratings expectations. Maybe it's better to have a smaller audience that appreciates different stories than a larger one that's drawn to the lowest common denominator. FX and AMC seem to have figured this out.

  • Charles Judson | February 8, 2013 6:18 PM

    THE WIREs ratings were low because it was dense. MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD aren't killing it in the ratings either (same with a few other HBO shows that never made it past season one or two), that goes to shows like THE WALKING DEAD. On network it goes to the NCISs.

    Watch season 5 of THE WIRE and you won't get half of the subtle references or connections. It's not the type of show that you can watch one episode in syndication and get drawn in after an episode or two. The very thing that makes it great, also limits its draw.

    NCISs ratings went up after years on the air because it's a show you can jump in at season 5 and just run with. Dropping the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was a clear nod to how broad it become after running for years, and picking up audience after syndication, much like FRIENDS and SEINFELD did before audience fragmentation.

    That being said, the problem with most proposed shows like this is that there's nothing inherently dramatic about the stories. No one knew what would and wouldn't work then, and not everyone was a saint or a sinner, and that's how a show like that has to be written. The Labor Movement alone is filled with clashing personalities, international and national politics, espionage, backroom deals, political backstabbing, leaders jockeying for power, bombings, death threats, appeasement, and long game strategy.

    Most of the leaders and important figures were making it up as they went along, and took some risky gambles that only in hindsight look like sure things. Even the "bad" guys aren't often shown to be the master strategists they were. The default setting is to show them pulling out the hoses. Screw the hoses, it's the stuff like forcing homeowners to have indoor plumbing, under the guise of public health, that allowed politicians and businesses to grab up land from black and poor a like. There are some incredibly intelligent and savvy black business leaders who navigated those waters and those who didn't. Let's tell those stories.

    Again, let's not the worry about who will watch it stop us from writing and creating those stories. Maybe that story never makes it to the big screen, but maybe it becomes a graphic novel, or a series of plays.

  • Chase | February 8, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    From a business approach, I can appreciate the gamble House of Cards is making; but I dont know if one show alone is enough to get people pay for a subscription - unless Netflix made the first 3 episodes available for free or something along those lines - but it is enough to keep my loyalty as a costumer for a while. I just finished the first season - it took about a week - and loved it. I'd much rather prefer to watch a series in blocks of 2 or 3 episodes at a time than wait 1 week for a new installment. The details are fresher in you mind when you binge.

    As to Charles' question about what kind of black story lines might fit best into this character driven ensemble format, I think a dramatic retelling of The Civil Rights Movement could work. Yea, I know its historical, but they could go some many places with it. Every season could cover a decade. The characters could range from A. Philip Randolph to Jimi Hendrix... or go earlier.

  • Charles Judson | February 8, 2013 4:19 PM

    Someone like A. Phillip Randolph would be ideal to build something around. You could cover a decade, but I'm sure there are even singular moments in the Labor Movement, or in organizing the Porters, or running for state office that would work within this. Especially if you don't tackle the story head on and expand it to include everyone involved. The list of names none of us know, even if you studied this, would be fairly long. You could even go with fictionalized characters to keep what happened to Randolph as close to truth, but use those new characters to tackle that era with fresh eyes and to give them their own dramatic arc.

  • CareyCarey | February 7, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    Charles, bear with me while I sing Sam Cooke's song. "I was born by the river in a little tent, and just like the river I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will."

    Actually Charles, I was raised 5 blocks from the Mississippi river, but I have been running - away - from that place ever since. But I used that song to illustrate my feelings while reading this piece. I mean, I read it over five time in an attempt to find your central point. So I was wondering when a change was gonna come.

    You opened with Netflix's ambitious marketing effort and then proceeded to tell us about the finer details of the House of Cards. So I'm thinking... when is he going to tie this in with the cinema of the African diaspora... I know a change gotta come?

    Well, although this article exceeded 1000 words, I believe you central point didn't hit home until there were less than 300 words to the finish-line. Then you fired your cannon:

    "Having watched all of CARDS, I ponder less who as a black writer/producer could pull off such a story, than ask what kind of stories would lend themselves to the same treatment. What stories can be told that both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue"

    Okay, now I am really perplexed. You're asking for stories that encompasses the "same treatment"... and both entertain and lend themselves to creating a dialogue. And wait, btw, forget about the color of writers/producers.

    Same treatment? Creating a dialogue? Excuse me, but those words forced me to read the article over and over again. I mean, "same treatment" as what? And, What dialogue? Is this a case of having your cake and eating it too?

    I am suggesting that in order to be "the same" one has to do the same. I don't think it's wise to discount, dilute or minimize any of the factors that enables House Of Cards to be in the position it presently finds itself. So are you referring to the same budget, same marketing plan, same business model, same entertainment value, a similar delivery of the storyline, same type of dialog or the same quality team of writers and actors? And oh, forget about the color of the directors/producers, right?

    Granted, it's great to wish upon a star and inspire conversation, but ambiguity pales in comparison to reality.

    In short, what were you really trying to say with this piece?

  • Charles Judson | February 7, 2013 12:19 PM

    Some of my previous replies are full of errors and dropped words, I at least want to "correct" one line: "...that's sitting in a drawer or jotted down as a single sentence in a note book."

  • Charles Judson | February 7, 2013 12:15 PM

    It's in the title. "What other stories could be told?" It's a thought piece to raise the question of what other narratives could be told and explored in long form, not in an abbreviated 90 minute chunk. Ambiguity is inherent because there's no other goal than to raise some points and let the reader take it from there. If it makes one think think, great. If not, that's okay too.

    Being blunt, I get f****** frustrated when I read some of the comments from black filmmakers across the net, including on S&A. We expect it to be blocked, stymied and given the run around. Which historically is understood. We have been (are) blocked, stymied and given the run around.

    However, that too often carries over into the way we approach storytelling. One of the great weaknesses in our infrastructure is that we don't have a lot of spaces for writers to just talk about the craft of writing. A lot of the discussions are structured around how to get in, what will and won't be produced, and less on the nuts and bolts of writing.

    We can't even raise some "What Ifs?" without the words "Will Not..." being attached by someone. One will never get far if every idea has to live or die by factors that won't even come into play sometime down the line. Some ideas are unworkable by their own structure and will fizzle out long before one has to worry about financing or distribution. Some require some creative thinking and are still workable. Many writers will kill an idea before they even know which of those paths is achievable.

    Personal artistic development, as well as story development itself, is an ongoing open ended process. When we make our processes entirely objective oriented, it leaves little room to do the basics, like practice our craft, take risks, and take on a challenge simply because we want to. Instead, the constraints imposed upfront choke all life out of an idea before it can become more than a few scribbled thoughts on a paper napkin.

    Think about actors. The point of constant training for actors is not to get a specific role, it's to have the tools to play a range of roles. There are those who take that training and spin it into amazing work. Others go through the motions. The training becomes a means to an end and it shows in their work and in how limited their career options are. They plateau and can't understand why.

    Writers and filmmakers should be talking about and exploring the what if's to prepare for the opportunities that may, can and will open up. We should be writing down ideas and working through them because we want to--screw anyone else that thinks they won't work. Out of that we should find the ones we're itching to produce. Out of that we should find the ones we want to fight like hell for.

    So what stories could be told? I know the ones I'm interested in. I'm sure one of S&A's readers right now has a HOUSE OF CARDS like story that one day will be produced, that's sitting in a drawer or jotted down as single sentence in not book. Will it be produced in the next five years? Or the next thirty? Will they have to go through fifty no's to get to the one yes? If they don't finish it, does it really matter?

  • Monique a Williams | February 6, 2013 8:05 PMReply

    We are truly in the golden age of television. I'm looking forward to taking this show in on a snowy weekend.

  • J Bernard | February 5, 2013 11:42 PMReply

    "David Fincher, Kevin Spacey and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings are crafting a show that's not just cynically designed to be binge watched to rack up subscribers and collect audience data, they've truly put the focus on telling a story that can't be resolved in 90 minutes...Broken down as chapters instead of episodes, the producers have followed the path that has made HBO, Showtime and AMC critical darlings."

    Exactly what is the problem here? Is Mr. Judson BRAND NEW to the idea of watching television? Has he not heard of daytime soap operas? Primetime soaps? Miniseries? Serialized storytelling in general? What in the name of all get out is so "cynical" about storytelling in the modern age that dates back to Charles Dickens? Has he ever head of "Rich Man, Poor Man"? "Shogun"? "Holocaust"? "Roots"? How about going back to "QB VII" in the early 70's? Over-generalize much, Judson? The only big difference here (all business considerations aside) is that all the episodes are being released at one time. Mr. Judson really needs a primer in television/broadcast history before writing about it.

    "Imagine a similar take set in current day Liberia or South Africa."

    One could look at any of the number of tv shows on African networks that normally reside on one's cable provider...if one can find them.

    EVA WROTE: "It is no secret the Netflix's streaming service has taken a hit in recent years. "

    Not exactly true, while it is true more competition has hit the marketplace, Netflix has been outperforming subscriber forecasts and earning expectations. From CNN Money: "Investors were pleasantly surprised by the number of new U.S. streaming subscribers. Netflix (NFLX) signed up 2.05 million in the fourth quarter, above the range the company predicted last quarter. That brings total U.S. streaming subscriber additions to 5.48 million for 2012. In total, Netflix now has 27.2 million U.S. streaming subscribers and another 6.1 million in global markets. Netflix's DVD-by-mail subscriptions continue to decline, falling 380,000 in the U.S. to about 8.2 million."

    Eva also wrote: "House of Cards was a genius choice for Netflix to hang their hat on. In the original, the story only uses politics as a backdrop and a means to explore the ambitions of the character." — Genius is the correct word. And the 2013 House of Cards is as mesmerizing as the BBC original.

  • Troy | February 7, 2013 6:37 PM

    Charles Judson just write articles like your and only the big dogs will come out to bite. Besides people usually try to target the writers eloquence to attack which they seem to perceive as an imposing argument.

  • Charles Judson | February 6, 2013 9:26 AM

    J Bernard, I wanted to further clarify my cynical comment.

    For 100 million dollars, Netflix could have looked for their own Tyler Perry/Charlie Sheen type of a project. Instead of 26 episodes of high quality programming, they could have produced 50 to 100 episodes of a so-so quickie show.

    They also could have gone a TV Land original programming route, producing a few shows with 10 to 13 episode seasons and launched a Netflix Channel.

    They could have even went partially in. Still aiming for high quality, but modeling the BBC, committing to a six episode series, or even two or three six episode series. Even the original HOUSE OF CARDS is only four episodes, twelve in total for the entire trilogy. Instead they went big on one project.

  • Charles Judson | February 6, 2013 3:57 AM

    @J Bernard If you've been following the conversations across several sites, a large focus has less been on the storytelling and more on Netflix's business model. Even before HOUSE OF CARDS was announced, there have been several think pieces and articles on Netflix and binge tv watching. There have been several afterwards.

    As Netflix has been battered, rightly or wrongly, in the press, it's easy to skip over the actual merits of HOUSE OF CARDS in terms of a complete story, to only focus on it as a ploy to get subscribers.

    This isn't surprising. Fox's initial launch lineup, HBO's ARLISS or 1st AND 10, Showtimes early missteps, TBS stabs at launching original comedy programs in the 1980s, and USA's 1990 shows, are examples of stations releasing more bombs and critical failures than hits in either ratings or with the press.

    Precedent tends to show that be it film, TV, radio, the initial programming is rarely anything approaching award winning. Take a look at AMC's shift in film selection before it became ad supported and it's focus afterwards. AMC still runs the hell out of some movies, showing them several times in one day. Execs like safe bets.

    It's only after OZ that HBO felt truly comfortable to even gamble, and it was a gamble, on THE SOPRANOS. Now it all looks like a sure thing. Well, it never was. Outside of similar gambles like STAR TREK: TNG, and a few outliers, no one had really gone toe to toe with the networks in producing shows at the same level or better. Now AMC, FX, HBO and Showtime can gobble up Emmy nominations with near ease.

    Instead of taking those lessons to heart and going the Fox/CW route of using teenagers and (content starved) Black and Latino viewers as a base, Netflix went big and basically went the HBO route, going for their own SOPRANOS level program.

    Gimmicks and relying on niche over storytelling is a repeated theme. Be it Cinemascope, 3D films (first in the 1950s, again in the modern era), teenagers, blaxplotation, sci-fi, or horror, producers and Hollywood have been quick to fall back on those elements, often combing them.

    Again, look at AMC. A network that experimented with DVD TV in the 2000's. Legit way to present films, or just a gimmick to repurpose films they've already shown dozens of times? And possibly pander to an audience discovering what Laserdics owners had been enjoying for years? AMC's lineup was never really the freshest, nor as "classic" as TCM. Showing RAMBO II for the 15th time doesn't really tap into much nostalgia or distance AMC from FX or TBS that could also show RAMBO at the time.

    Releasing all 13 episodes could have been little more than a gimmick, instead Netflix produced a bonafide work of fiction that outside of its release strategy stands on its own. History shows that it's a strategy that is safe and easy to sell.

    We could look to the mini-series as a precursor. However, the mini-series and the movie of the week are two network models that died out in the 1990s. These models moved to cable TV, where lower budgets and niche targeting (ala Scifi's DUNE series) made them less risky and more viable. Again safe harbor.

    Even then, one can't ignore the glaring fact that the production budgets of most mini-series and movies of the week are much, much lower than what was put into either a NORTH AND SOUTH, ROOTS or V. So you're right that if this was 1986, no one would think twice about HOUSE OF CARDS. But, this isn't 1986 or even 1997.

    Netflix doesn't have the pedigree that makes HOUSE OF CARDS an expected next step like BAND OF BROTHERS would have been for HBO by 2001.

    So is there a problem here? No. The problem would be in ignoring the point of the post is to question what kind of stories could lend themselves to a similar treatment. Not in misunderstanding the history of television production or to purely speculate the business gamble of the show. I'm interested in something much more broader and interesting.

  • Troy | February 5, 2013 8:48 PMReply

    Kevin Spacey did the lobbying movie. American back room political deals play out on national television more than any other country. I don't see why they remade this British work. We just witnessed a billion dollar election campaign and how the poorest constituents seek to claim equal share ownership as international corporations. College sports, indentured servitude, and why people with meaningless blue collar jobs think they deserved to be paid more than athletes who sell out arenas, bring in millions of household viewers, and stimulate local/state economies all over the country. The age gap in the non-monolithic black community supports adults banding together to admonish adolescents whom statistics of achievement blow preceding generations away in almost every category. How about how hip hop is panned primarily because the caricature of the Gangsta rapper and the plot device of overcoming adversity has been setup as the default straw man for all that is wrong with black people. Why is the advancement of white women inspiration to black women but the advancement of white men seem to have no effect on black men? What is the opposite of a futurist and how does those prone to nostalgia contribute to the world we wake up in? How do those living in a post-racial world justify adhering invisible lines of demarcation that declares the city, county, state, and country you live in but refuses to aknowledge the differences in real blood lines? Urban Politicians who come from the south or born in districts where no blacks have held a seat. Fortune 500 companies links to child sex slavery. Why sex sells everything even God?

  • Eva | February 5, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    I think the gamble Netflix took on The House of Cards is even less risky than you indicate in this article.
    A- it is no secret the Netflix's streaming service has taken a hit in recent years. They've lost a ton of A-list content, it has competition with Amazon Prime, studios are simply not making movies available for streaming the way they used to, and Hulu is biting into the tv market. So they need to do something about streaming content to maintain a customer base that they'd been hemorrhaging.
    B- They have data on the viewing patterns of their streaming customers. I can tell you that most people I know who have Netflix, will binge watch episodes of tv shows that Netflix has in their catalog, especially stuff that you they didn't catch during first run. So the idea of people watching a show straight through episode after episode is most likely a proven model for them.

    C- they picked a darned good property to remake. The original British version of House of Cards is outstanding. I've seen it twice over the past 10 years. The lead character is amoral and charismatic and the show tells ripping good story.

    Which brings me to the content of the article. I absolutely agree that is is something that could be parlayed to tell stories that prominently feature black characters and shine the light on the complexity those people's life. But what would never work, imo, is some overly earnest look at black life or black history. At the end of the day, tv needs to entertain, not jut inform. If you are going to have someone invest as many as 13 hours on watching single narrative, then you have to want to keep them coming back for more. As I mentioned above, House of Cards was a genius choice for Netflix to hang their hat on. In the original, the story only uses politics as a backdrop and a means to explore the ambitions of the character. The appeal of the story, and what kept me watching, is in how the main character maneuvered people around him. On the one hand you wanted him to get taken down but on the other you wanted him to come out on top. Kinda of like how I feel about Walter White on Breaking Bad.

  • Lane | February 5, 2013 2:48 AMReply

    Great great article with some really discussion worthy ideas that you bring up and dilute super well.

  • jd | February 4, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    Such a thought provoking, solid essay. Raising &reflecting, needed community inquiry. Thank you.

  • lauren | February 4, 2013 7:18 PMReply

    The British version is better and its lead actor kicks Kevin Spacey's ass up and down the block with one well appointed sneer.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | February 4, 2013 7:04 PMReply

    Yours are the questions I keep asking. Why can't we?

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