Like a House of Cards: Online Content and the Changing Face (or Screen) of Television Part I

Part I

Link to Part II

In a fit of roommate bonding and late-night boredom, my new roommate and I decided to check out the Netflix series House of Cards. I hadn’t seen advertisements and knew little about the content. The only information I had going in was that it was an unserialized serial — all parts of the whole available for viewing at the same time. That was enough to spark my interest. In the end, House of Cards is the perfect series with which to inaugurate the new direction of serialized content.


Building the House – A History

Fortunately (as if I had any doubts) House of Cards turned out to be a great show, one that the roomie and I finished over the course of four days and left us begging for more. We could have chosen to do the mature thing and metered out the episodes, watching only one per week or even one per night to set a reasonable watching pace. But where’s the fun in that?

Netflix has wisely adapted to the increasingly prevalent practice of watching all episodes of a show within a confined period of time, on our own schedules and as many as we want. They are finally allowing us to gulp after a decades long business model has taught us to sip. What interests me is how this abundance of story affects how a non-serialized series tells us its story, and likewise, how we take it in. That will be a topic for deeper discussion in another article.

In the beginning, there was advertising. Almost as if to justify their existence, from an early age stories needed to rely on their hypnotic power in order to survive. Instead of hearing a whole story tonight, if you only heard the first half, you would come back tomorrow to hear the ending, a concept dating back to 1001 Nights and I’m certain, beyond. Several of literature’s greatest contributors wrote short serialized pieces for magazines which sold advertising space to merchandisers. (A running joke in literary circles says that this practice goes a long way in explaining why Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is so long.) The simple rule, prolonging a good thing will prolong the results.

The same practice was quickly applied to television as we traditionally know it. Advertisers used to (and still do) pay a network for commercial air time during a weekly TV show. Networks simultaneously provide a conduit for TV storytellers to tell their stories to audiences who would have no other way of seeing their content. This tradition continued for several decades until the rise of cable. A weekly audience ensured weekly profits.

When Cable TV came along, it wasn’t necessary to continue the tradition of advertising, as viewers already paid for subscriptions. But why limit oneself to so little of a good thing? Cable TV (as distinct from Broadcast TV) generated revenue by double dipping — charging subscription fees along with gaining money from advertisers. The trend has been only slightly broken by the so-called “Premium Cable” networks — HBO, Showtime and the like — that charge higher subscription fees than basic cable but in a trade off, tend to reduce commercial interruption.

Then slowly, ways of capturing content developed. VCRs, then DVRs, and finally the internet gave us a way to time-shift our viewing — recording material to be watched at a later date, and usually without commercials. As a near precedent to the lengthy legal battles surrounding online content, at one point Universal (unsuccessfully) tried to argue that time-shifting was illegal.

In some ways this makes sense. There was a time when television ran on a cost-deficit model, in which the initial run of a series did not make much profit after production fees, but would make much more money in syndication. Capturing content would, in theory, deprive production companies of profit gained through syndication if viewers were able to watch previous shows at their leisure. Likewise, Execs feared that this practice would damage the sale of DVDs and hurt the foreign market for shows going abroad.

But in the same way that the music industry restructured itself around the possibility of online streaming and downloads, TV finally began to follow. Hulu, Amazon and Netflix have become the new premium subscription services, but up until recently they only provided a window into back-dated content. Various agreements determine how many days beyond an initial broadcast airing can a program be shown. Advertising still generates the bulk of revenue for these sites, but elite levels such as Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime have created another revenue stream.

The result for the past few years has been viewers turning away from television screens toward computer screens to catch up on shows they’ve missed, or explore a new series altogether on their own terms. Because all episodes are available at the same time, it’s not uncommon to binge, watching entire seasons within weeks, or a whole series within a few days (as I did when catching up to season six of Dexter). The serialized model existed originally to, first, prolong the opportunities to make money from advertising, but also because it gave networks options for how many episodes to order in advance.

There are various business reasons that I could delve into further, but as always, what interests me more is the creative result from such a model. Like the 19th century writers scribbling away to earn their daily living, the trajectory of a serialized story is not always known in the beginning. This is part of the reason that I’ve been reluctant to study television in previous writings, because it exists as a moving target with no clear and foreknown future. (I would say that a similar “moving target” aspect exists for video games as well, which is part of why I bristle slightly at the “video games are art” argument, but that is certainly a discussion for another time.)

Because things are only understood in context, the story we see in a pilot episode is not the same story that we perceive in the context of the season finale. Serialized television provides us an array of puzzle pieces intended to have the most significance when viewed from afar. Writers tend to work out the storyline of a series before many (if any) episodes have aired, but there is an undeniably affected sense to television. It is a breathing art form that is influenced by the same factors as everything else, but in near-real time.

Likewise, the traditional rat race model involving pitch seasons and pick ups and upfronts and pilots has an undeniable influence on story as well. A show that gets cancelled after 10 episodes has a much different story than one whose writers learned that the show would be picked up for the remainder of a season.

What is nice about House of Cards is that in breaking new ground, it also bypassed a lot of heartache for the story. Netflix ordered two seasons to provide directly to consumers, the entirety of the first season written, shot, cut and shoved through post before ever airing, existing in a completely closed system from start to finish. Its story remains untouched by consuming eyes until it is ripe for the picking. This is why I find House of Cards so fascinating.

Part II

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