What We Learned From The Netflix Binge Viewing Experiment: House of Cards

Emiah Gardner | Feb 20, 2013

If there was ever a question about the motivation and reasoning behind the Netflix decision to release all 13 first-season episodes of its new original show, House of Cards, the words of CEO Reed Hastings set the record straight.

House of Cards Netflix

“With Netflix, members can enjoy a show anytime, and over time, we can effectively put the right show in front of members based on their viewing habits,” Hastings said, in a letter to investors.

Based on years of empirical data, Netflix understands better than any streaming content company how subscribers want to view episodic television. It’s called “binge viewing,” and it’s the way millions of people prefer to watch television programming.

Still, there’s risk associated with simultaneously releasing the entire first season of a flagship series. Netflix invested $100 million in 26 episodes—13 for each of the first two seasons—which places House of Cards closer to the top than bottom in per-episode costs. What if subscribers and critics alike don’t care for the new show; would this make the simultaneous-release model a failure? If the new show isn’t well received, has Netflix inadvertently stumbled out of the gate to poison the future of this new model?

Netflix clearly will not have to answer these questions. Since House of Cards premiered it has been a success. Netflix tapped top directors David Fincher (The Social Network and Fight Club) and Joel Schumacher (Trespass and Veronica Guerin) and A-list acting talent both in lead and supporting roles, the combination of which works wonderfully.

Additionally, the subject matter has broad appeal and Netflix has made it even more accessible to general audiences by reining in the foul language and gratuitous nudity so prevalent in today’s original content marketplace.

Still, questions linger about strategy, citing the lack of weekly interaction from media critics and social media enjoyed by traditional, weekly-installment programming. Shows with scheduled weekly releases benefit from the social media buzz between episodes. They also enjoy the luxury of a variety of commercial ads touting each new episode.

Time will tell if critics are right, but Hastings takes issue with the current method. “The traditional entertainment ecosystem is built on it, and it’s a totally artificial concept,” he said during a recent interview with GQ. “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.”

Netflix isn’t releasing any viewership numbers, and likely won’t for a while. After all, this is its grand experiment and if they want television executives to fret a bit over this new model, it should play its cards close. However, analysis from Procera, a company that monitors large, broadband cable and DSL networks, estimates between 1.5 and 2.7 million people watched at least one episode.

Not divulging its number supports something Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos disclosed in the same GQ interview: “The goal,” he said, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

Will Netflix subscribers have to wait a full year for season two? Can a television series operate like a movie franchise, with fans waiting a year or longer for the next installment? For now, these questions remain unanswered. Netflix hasn’t announced the release date of season two, but filming is expected to begin this spring.

Perhaps the words of House of Cards executive producer Beau Willimon put this into the proper perspective. “This is the future, streaming is the future. TV will not be TV five years from now. Everyone will be streaming.”


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