Francis “Frank” Underwood, a House majority whip who plays the Washington game such as a chess grand master, is one of many more interesting characters of the present network television season.
But Underwood, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, doesn’t appear on any broadcast or cable TV network. And he doesn’t appear on any TV that’s not connected, directly or by way of a computer and other device, to the Internet.
Underwood is the main character in “House of Cards,” the series that premiered this month on Netflix.
Netflix became well-known for its DVD-by-mail service, a company model that upended the retail video rental business. The company then got into the video streaming business. Its subscribers is now able to pick from a reasonably broad variety of content, including many old movies and television shows and some popular new ones. The video streaming business remains sorting itself out, with various shows available on free advertising-supported venues, such as the TV networks’own websites, alongside subscription services like Netflix and rental or purchase options on Apple and Amazon. Amazon can also be a rising power in streaming content, where it could ultimately challenge Netflix the way Netflix challenged Blockbuster in video rentals.
Both video rental and streaming are distribution businesses. The real power, as cable TV providers have long understood, is in owning this content that’s being distributed. Cable companies regularly lose battles in that they try to put up the line on fees demanded by owners of popular content. This is why cable leaders like Comcast and Time Warner have invested heavily to obtain or develop their own content brands, like NBC and HBO. Just this week, Comcast announced it is buying out General Electric’s 49 percent curiosity about NBC, giving Comcast sole ownership of the broadcaster and its cable affiliates, including MSNBC.
“House of Cards” – which is actually a version of a BBC television series from two decades ago – is Netflix’s game-changing reply to HBO and its imitators. The series’production values, star headliners and writing are on par with the average network or cable drama. It isn’t “Downton Abbey” (for which Amazon recently acquired exclusive streaming rights) or “Homeland” or “Mad Men,” but it certainly holds its against more pedestrian cable fare like Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” or USA Network’s “Suits.”
They’re all shows that my partner and I watch regularly. I don’t have any qualifications as a television critic, aside from the fact that I arguably watch too much television, but I believe I’m discerning enough to at the very least appreciate the commercial implications of what Netflix did, if not the artistic ones.
Netflix has delivered a set that folks will pay money to watch. Spacey and Robin Wright, who plays Underwood’s wife Claire, are fine actors who prevent their characters from becoming caricatures of a Washington power couple. Frank and Claire aren’t sticklers about their marriage vows. They do not view “monogamy” and “loyalty” interchangeably, and they insist only on the latter in one another. Their marriage is a functional, rather than a romantic, partnership. Yet we believe them if they say they love each other, only if because each understands the other thoroughly and accepts him or her unconditionally.
Kate Mara, who has many acting credits but is less famous than her sister Rooney, gets a breakthrough role as a journalist who finds that her principles are more flexible than her ambitions. Gerald McRaney, recently seen on “Mike & Molly” as Mike Biggs’overbearing police captain boss, is an amusing actor and a common face. The rest of the cast is able, and the writing and directing are usually around par, though it struck me that Mara’s character bounces too readily from naïve ingénue to Underwood’s Machiavellian collaborator and disciple.
So Netflix delivered a television series worthy of the name. But it isn’t just the airwaves or the cable channels which are missing. In the absence of TV ratings, how can we – or Netflix – know whether “House of Cards” is a hit? Netflix will have to mine its copious data, from how many of its viewers streamed the series, to exactly how many managed to get all the best way to the final episode, to exactly how many new subscribers registered and then tuned their browsers to the show.
Like HBO, Showtime and other premium cable channels, Netflix needs paying subscribers to survive. HBO started its life as a purveyor of films that had previously been in theaters – just like Netflix did two decades later. HBO moved into the content-production business with breakout hits like “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” Now Netflix is trying to check out suit. But HBO still relies on cable for distribution; Netflix can work with anybody’s bandwidth.
Google’s YouTube and Amazon’s Prime streaming service are equally as much Netflix’s competitors as the cable or broadcast networks are. The three streaming services together, in reality, may pose a more impressive threat to the old TV model than they currently do to 1 another.
Another glimpse into the future recently came from “Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome,” a prequel to the Syfy channel’s cable hit, which first aired nearly nine years ago. “Blood and Chrome” premiered as a 10-part series on the Internet via buy youtube subscribers cheap , which still carries it, but it addittionally ran in as just one movie-length feature on Syfy.