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Netflix Enters Original Content World By Backing David Fincher/Kevin Spacey Series 'House of Cards'

by Oliver Lyttelton
March 16, 2011 12:58 PM
3 Comments
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The term 'game-changer' gets bandied around a lot, but rarely accurately. "The Matrix Revolutions," for instance, was billed as such. So was "Tron: Legacy," and neither seem to have changed any games, as such. "Avatar" has the most claim to the title, seeing as how it immediately encouraged every other film in town to go 3D, but it was also pretty much a once-in-a-generation phenomenon: "Mars Needs Moms" proved only this weekend that 3D and motion capture in no way ensures any kind of box office success.

The real revolutions come more gradually and quietly, and are less sexy than a $300 million dollar CGI-heavy action movie, but a story broke yesterday that does seem to be a true game-changer. We reported a couple weeks back that David Fincher and Kevin Spacey were teaming for a new TV series, "House of Cards," an adaptation of a popular British book and TV series from the 1990s, about the rise of a corrupt, Machiavellian, murderous politician. The series was being backed by Media Rights Capital, and networks, most likely cable channels, were all set to kick off a bidding war for the rights to air the show. A victor has emerged from the battle, and it's an entirely unexpected one.

Deadline reports that DVD rental/video streaming market leaders Netflix have won the rights to air "House of Cards," outbidding the likes of HBO and AMC in their first venture into the production of original content. Even more remarkably, the company beat off the competition by making an almost unheard-of commitment to two seasons of the show, or 26 episodes in total, meaning that the deal is worth somewhere in the region of $100 million.

Going straight to series is slightly more common on cable than on network TV -- shows such as "Rome," "The Walking Dead" and "Camelot" all bypassed the pilot stage -- but it's still rare, and committing upfront to two series has, as far as we can tell, never been done before. It's a major gamble for the company, but it's also achieved the desired effect of teaming with the people behind "The Social Network" -- announcing Netflix's entry into production with the biggest splash possible.

Rumors have been flying for some time that the company might follow the path of HBO (which was in existence for 15 years before it aired its first original series, "Oz," in 1997), and begin producing original content, although it was denied by Netflix themselves. But with the company's impressive market-lead being threatened by Amazon and Facebook, who are both dipping their toes into the video-streaming business, widely seen to be the future of home entertainment, a coup like this may well be worth the risk.

This was always going to happen at some stage -- the way that people consume entertainment has changed irrevocably in the last few years. The average age of a TV viewer in the U.S. is now well over 50 -- with audiences like yourselves increasingly watching TV series on demand, whether through iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or less legal outlets. But while there have been some modest successes in terms of online-only shows -- Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog" or Rob Corddry's "Children's Hospital" spring to mind -- nothing of this scale has ever been attempted, and it'll be fascinating to see how it turns out.

Of course, we're unlikely to see this for some time yet: Fincher's wrapped up in "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" for the moment, while Spacey's touring the world on stage as Richard III for director Sam Mendes for basically the whole of the second half of 2011, so the earliest that the first season could shoot would be be early 2012, thus unlikely to hit Netflix for at least another year. Still, as an indicator of where the industry is heading in the next few years, it's a very good one.

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More: Actors, TV Networks, Kevin Spacey, House Of Cards

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3 Comments

  • LA2000 | March 16, 2011 12:39 PMReply

    @Cory - As Oliver points out, this is the HBO model, where you generate original programming to drive subscriber increases, not ratings and advertiser dollars. They aren't really inventing something new in that regard. However, if Netflix manages to create a "Mad Men" or "Sopranos" or "Sex and the City" that only requires a $7.99 monthly subscription instead of the $60 or so dollars you have to spend just to get HBO, then they will have managed to undercut the entire cable tv bundled/tiered pricing structure.

    And that would be something to see.

    @Scrotum - Sure. The only good episodes of "The Sopranos", "West Wing," "Mad Men", and "The Wire" were the episodes directed by David Fincher.

    Whatever.

  • Cory Everett | March 16, 2011 2:58 AMReply

    That's possible, but I don't think there's any reason at this point to believe that will be the case.

    The bigger story obviously is Netflix though and how they'll be rolling out the show, without any notion of "live" or "rerun" what effect that will have on the concept of ratings.

  • Scrotum | March 16, 2011 2:22 AMReply

    The Fincher episode will be the only one worth watching. The other episodes will be standard tv-hack directed garbage.

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