House of Cards

Via Pocket Lint.

Via Pocket Lint.

I'm through the first three episodes of House of Cards, the Davd Fincher-produced Netflix Original Series that just launched its first thirteen-episode run. Thumbs up. It's a great show, and it can stand side-by-side with top-tier television programming. Kevin Spacey is fantastic, as usual, and the supporting cast is strong. Highly recommended for those of you with a Netflix subscription.

House of Cards is Netflix's second original series, and the first that really matters. It's a great compliment to the people involved that the distribution model is not the most interesting part of House of Cards. However, it is definitely worth discussing. Much has been written about its significance, but most pieces have centered on how cable companies might react or what HBO might do in response. Much more interesting, I think, is the effect House of Cards could have on content creators - that is, the folks that make television programming, not the ones who distribute it.

For the moment, let's set aside the phrase "television programming." When we talk about programs like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, what we're really talking about is serialized storytelling. What television has done since its inception is become the dominant player in the serialized storytelling businesses. The significance of House of Cards is that it demonstrates the viability of an alternative serialization mechanism.

To create serialized programming, you need three things. First, you need a creative vision to handle the product. Second, you need money to finance the product. Third, you need a channel to distribute the product. If you can build this chain, you can challenge television. The problem is that, until now, challenges have always been missing one component. Either they had talent and distribution but insufficient money (Funny or Die is a great example of this), or money and distribution but no talent (some higher-quality YouTube programming), or all three but in insufficient quantities (Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog comes to mind). House of Cards is the first major program to have all three components. It's got a creative pedigree that's second to none. It's got the budget to realize the creative team's vision. And it's got a hugely popular distribution system. Aces all around. So how does Netflix attack TV now?

Simple: by taking away its best producers.

The limits of working within the television medium are well-documented. You're dealing with large corporations with a wide variety of interests bankrolled by big-name advertisers. Unless you're on a premium channel, you're restricted to ten-minute chunks of storytelling puntuated by commercial breaks. And if your product is appealing to viewers but not advertisers, or if you're up against strong opposition in the same timeslot on another network, or if you just happen to broadcast on a Friday, you're liable to be kicked to the curb and have your baby taken from you. Some companies handle this better than others, but the basic realities of the distribution model limit the scope of the artist.

This is why I believe the most revolutionary aspect of House of Cards is not its distribution, but the way Netflix reportedly has handled its production. David Fincher, an artist with nothing left to prove, was given a $100 million check and told to make a great series. Not everyone could do it, but he certainly could, and it seems as though he did it on his terms.

Now imagine Netflix calls up Bryan Fuller or Shawn Ryan and says, "Here's the deal. Pitch us. If we like it, then you get ten episodes, a $XX million budget, and final cut. We'll put out whatever you come up with." When faced with a choice between that and another round through television's pitch-pilot-produce-cancellation cycle... well, you're going to capture some talent that way.

What if Aaron Sorkin decides he wants to do a series on his terms, and suddenly Netflix comes along with a big pile of cash? Or Ron Moore gets sick of dealing with TV executives and just wants to focus on telling a story in his way? If the money is there (and I am assuming that Netflix's cash is sufficient to make it happen), then suddenly you've got an exodus of talent from the television industry.

How does TV react? Well, studios can start offering more money, or they can change the terms of their deal with creators to give them more control, or they can focus on new talent, or they can just air more reality programming and cede the most engaged segment of the market to the Internet. In any event, things won't be able to continue the same way. The world will have been changed.

A lot of things need to happen from this point on. Arrested Development needs to be a hit when Netflix brings it back. More new series with this kind of pedigree need to enter the production pipeline. Cash flow needs to remain strong. But the key to competing with TV has always been to establish this chain of product, financing, and distribution. Netflix has solved the financing, solved the distribution, and has a perfect example of the kind of product great creators are going to be empowered to make.

The great television disruption may finally be close at hand.