When Netflix’s new television show “House of Cards” debuted on the streaming service Friday, the company was hit with a wave of praise not only because the political drama is getting great reviews, but for ushering in the future of entertainment.
Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings built the foundation of his company on the idea that customers would rent DVDs by mail. The vision for the coming years, though, is quite different.
With “House of Cards,” Hastings bet big on tendency of TV audiences to consume their shows in their own time. Acclaimed dramas like “Mad Men,” “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” have made binge watching -- watching multiple episodes of a show in one sitting -- the new norm, made possible by DVDs, DVRs and streaming services.
All 13 episodes of “House of Cards” -- starring Kevin Spacey as a corrupt politician -- were released on Friday, enabling viewers to skip the usual weeklong wait time between episodes. Hastings gave director David Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Fight Club”) a budget of $100 million to produce two 13-episode seasons for Netflix.
The premiere is just the beginning, with the Netflix-exclusive “Arrested Development” reunion in the works along with the Ricky Gervais vehicle “Derek” and “Orange Is the New Black,” a women’s prison show from the creator of “Weeds,” scheduled to premiere in early 2013. Attracting more attention, though, is Hastings’ determination to reinvigorate how Hollywood works.
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“The traditional entertainment ecosystem is built on it, and it’s a totally artificial concept,” the CEO said during a recent GQ interview. “The point of managed dissatisfaction is waiting. You’re supposed to wait for your show that comes on Wednesday at 8 p.m., wait for the new season, see all the ads everywhere for the new season, talk to your friends at the office about how excited you are.”
“House of Cards,” which has been described as a sort of anti-“West Wing,” skips the traditional beats of a series, eliminating crutches like flashbacks in favor of keeping the audience guessing.
Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos told the New York Times “House of Cards” “assumes you know what’s happening all the time, whereas television has to assume that a big chunk of the audience is always just tuning in.”
It’s also attracting the attention of the Hollywood elite, who are starting to perceive Netflix as an escape from the drudgery of the major studio system. Along with heavy hitters in Fincher and Spacey, “House of Cards” also stars Robin Wright and up-and-comer Kate Mara.
“This is the direction that storytelling is evolving, where you're going to have the most interesting story lines, the most interesting characters," Spacey said. "What a company like Netflix is doing is the ultimate expression of individual control, proof of what people's attention span really is."