There’s no denying this. On nearly every front, from content (and content delivery) to advertising to people’s viewing habits and schedules, the television landscape is rapidly shifting, and in no small part due to the advent of Netflix, Hulu, DVR and Tivo, as well as networks putting up dozens of episodes free to watch. There’s never been a time when viewers have had more options when it comes to watching what they want, when they want.
This has for a while now gotten me thinking about what this bodes for the future of television programming, especially in a landscape where many viewers will store up a half dozen episodes of a show on their DVR and either “binge watch” or go at a glacial pace, far slower than how the network doles them out. It turns out that Netflix may have provided the answer.
On Feb. 1, Netflix released the first season of “House of Cards,” an Americanized version of a British show, a drama that sheds light on the dark corners of the United States congress and the machinations of Francis Underwood, majority whip for the congressional democrats. Produced by Kevin Spacey (who also stars) and David Fincher (who directs the first two episodes), the show is outstanding (I blazed through about 11 of the 13 episodes over the course of this past weekend) and is easily on par with the content put out by the likes of HBO and AMC in terms of writing, production value, acting and every other facet.
However, unlike the shows on HBO and AMC which force viewers to watch episodes at the network’s decided schedule, Netflix has released all 13 episodes at once via their Instant Watch service, providing an unprecedented amount of freedom to the viewers, allowing each customer to watch at whatever interval they wish.
This is game-changing. Well, at least it has the potential to be. It will largely depend on how well “House of Cards” is received (and, anecdotally speaking, the word I’m hearing from the rising tide of friends watching it is universally positive), as well as when Netflix attempts the same release strategy with the new season of “Arrested Development” later this year.
There’s plenty of incentive to do this, though, and not just from the perspective of following the viewing trends of the day. Digital distribution means being able to subvert the Federal Communications Commission wholesale. That means no restrictions on what a television show can say or show. I don’t think that means we’ll suddenly have every show dropping F-bombs and showing nudity, but it does mean that show creators will no longer be hampered by what networks will and will not allow to be shown due to fear of FCC violations or advertiser blowback. It’ll be a whole new ballgame when it comes to content.
It means that content will, for perhaps the first time in television history, be propelled by what viewers actually want to (and do) watch now that viewership statistics can be tracked far more accurately than by using the archaic, outdated Nielsen system. This is perhaps what excites me the most, finally having an environment where creators and their shows are given the proper amount of freedom, attention and recognition they deserve.
This is all purely speculation, of course, and much of it will depend on how advertisers and viewers respond (although reports indicate that the response to “House of Cards” has thus far been quite satisfactory). But one way or the other we’re going to start seeing a significant shift in the way networks begin producing and distributing content, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it mirrors this model closely. Here’s hoping, at least.