What: “House of Cards”
Where: Netflix streaming customers
By Jake Coyle
AP Entertainment Writer
In Netflix’s bid for a flagship original drama of its own — a “Sopranos” to its HBO — the subscription streaming service is presenting a high-class adaptation of a British political thriller offered up all at once, with its first season immediately ready for TV-viewing gluttony.
The show, “House of Cards,” is a bold attempt to remake the television landscape with the kind of prestige project cable channels such as HBO, AMC and Showtime have used to define themselves. But “House of Cards,” produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, won’t be on the dial of that refuge of quality dramas — cable television — but streamed online to laptops and beamed directly to flat-screens through set-top boxes and Internet-enabled devices.
“It’s sort of like we’re the new television series that isn’t on television,” says Spacey.
On Feb. 1, all 13 hours of “House of Cards” will premiere on Netflix, a potentially landmark event that could herald the transition of television away from pricey cable bundles and toward the Internet — a process well under way at YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo and others, but not yet tested to the degree of “House of Cards.”
The show is no low-budget Web series, but an HBO-style production for which Netflix reportedly paid in the neighborhood of $100 million for two seasons.
“When we got into original programming, I wanted it to be loud and deliberate,” says Ted Sarandos, head of content at Netflix, who will only say the cost was in the “high end” for a TV show. “I wanted consumers to know that we were doing it, and I wanted the industry to know that we were doing it so we could attract more interesting projects. Doing it in some half-way, some small thing, it wasn’t going to get us there.”
The revered British original aired in three seasons from 1990 to 1996 and was adapted from the books by Michael Dobbs, a notable politician and adviser to Margaret Thatcher. It starred Ian Richardson as a scheming, manipulating politician who shared his power-hungry strategies directly into the camera. With a darkly comic antihero as protagonist, it was a forerunner to characters such as Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and Dexter Morgan of “Dexter.”
Independent studio Media Rights Capital, a producer of films such as “Ted” and “Babel,” purchased the rights to “House of Cards” and paired Fincher with the project, along with Beau Willimon, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of another political drama, “The Ides of March.”
When MRC approached various networks (HBO, Showtime and others), it reached out to Netflix about adding the show to its digital library after a run on TV. But Netflix wanted “House of Cards” as a statement show to launch a crop of original programming.
Sarandos says their wealth of data on user viewing habits proved there’s a large audience for Fincher, Spacey and political thrillers. As licensing rights have gotten pricier and harder to land, and the streaming business has grown more competitive, Netflix has focused on adding exclusive programming to entice viewers.
“When you look at ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Sex and the City’ on HBO, or ‘Mad Men’ on AMC or ‘The Shield’ on FX or ‘Weeds’ on Showtime, if you have the opportunity to earn your way into becoming that sort of anchor flagship show that defines a network, it’s a very special thing,” says Modi Wiczyk, co-CEO of MRC. “I’m sure going in, all of those folks that produced all of those shows said, ‘This is not an incumbent. What’s it going to look like?’”
A general spirit of rookie experimentation pervades “House of Cards,” the first TV show for Fincher, the director of “Fight Club” and “The Social Network.”
“I walk into this as a total neophyte. I don’t watch much TV,” says Fincher, who directed the first two hours and has overseen the whole series. “What was interesting to me was the notion of having a relationship with an audience that was longer than two hours.”
Obsessively bingeing on a serial, whether “The Wire” or “Battlestar Galactica,” has become a modern ritual in DVR-emptying bursts, on- demand catch-ups or DVD marathons. In releasing “House of Cards” all at once, Netflix will sacrifice the attention generated by weekly episodes to cater to these habits. Sarandos notes that in the first 24 hours that Netflix had the second season to AMC’s “Walking Dead,” about 200,000 people watched the entire season.
Netflix, being outside the purview of Nielsen ratings, doesn’t plan to release viewership figures for “House of Cards.” Instead, they hope to retain and add to its 27.1 million domestic subscribers, a number that hasn’t always grown as quickly as some Wall Street investors have wanted. (A positive earnings report Wednesday, though, sent the stock soaring.) The audience for “House of Cards” will be immediately global: It premieres in 50 countries and territories.
“We want to have a situation where these shows have time to find their audience,” says Sarandos. “We’re not under any time constraints that we have to get all of America to watch this show Monday night at 8 o’clock. There’s no differential value in people watching it this year, let alone Monday night.”