It still remains to be seen whether 2013 will prove to be a true watershed in television history, like 1999/2000 (the debuts of The Sopranos and Survivor), but if this year’s Emmy nominations are any indication, then the future of TV is well upon us, and Netflix is leading the way.
Amidst the expected roll call of usual suspects in the drama categories you will find House of Cards, the political thriller shepherded by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright (both of whom received acting nominations). The significance, of course, is not that a prestige production is getting recognition, but who is producing it, and where (or, rather, how) it’s being broadcast. Netflix entrée into the TV game is now, as of this moment, a big deal—and the real deal. It’s not really a question of number of nominations (though the tally is respectable, nine for House of Cards, and a few more for the revival of Arrested Development) – it’s just the fact of being nominated at all. And neither is it a question of the other big TV numbers, ratings, since the Netflix model throws the outdated modes and metrics out the window (mostly by ignoring them, or at least being very cagey).
Though Netflix tested the waters of original broadcasting in 2012, with the Steven van Zandt starring Lillyhammer, 2013’s House of Cards marked the streaming company’s big coming out party as a contender in the TV game. And though they’ve kept the hard viewing numbers under wraps (which, given the show’s unorthodox release “schedule,” any aggregation numbers just don’t compare with traditional Nielsen rating schema), Netflix was loud in declaring the show a success, both in terms of popularity and quality.
And now Emmy voters (for whatever it’s worth to you, though they seem to have a pretty good barometer for quality, except for being perennially hoodwinked by the wretched American Horror Story) seem to have given Netflix—and its model for online broadcasting—the validation to turn an experiment into paradigm shift. With the rapid subsequent success of the fourth season of Arrested Development and now Orange is the New Black, the Netflix model – like it or not – is going to force the major networks, both broadcast and cable, to counter in some way, especially with the continuing and ever accelerating fragmentation of audience attention.
But is Netflix really reinventing the wheel, here? Though superficially revolutionary, Netflix seems mostly reactionary, their production and distribution model a reflection of how a large chunk of viewership prefers to view their television series – readily available in complete season chunks, able to be binge watched over a rainy weekend, TV on the viewers’ terms, not the networks. Binge-watching inevitably begets binge-production and binge-distribution—Netflix is merely the first in the game. And, of course, Netflix was somewhat instrumental in bringing this type of viewing habit to the fore, first with mailed DVDs (which, you know, they still do), and then from licensing entire runs of TV shows (those still on air and those defunct and completed) for their nascent streaming service over the past five or six years.
So it only makes sense at some point that they would key in on this to produce and broadcast an entirely new show of their own that would mirror these habits and expectations. It’s not enough anymore to wait till a show completes its fall-spring run, week to week, to pig out on it. Why not just produce an entire season of a show all at once and be done with it, making all episodes available immediately upon release?
This defies the ratings-advertising shackled model that the big networks run on, where success and failure is charted week to week, and cancelation looms over even nominally successful shows. With a different metric of success in place (which, really, is the great unknown at this point), a show on this model is free run off in unexpected directions and take chances that programming bound to Nielsen ratings can’t (or won’t). And viewers can at least afford to take a chance on a show knowing that they’ll get an entire season (even if it’s 10 or 13 episodes) without it being pulled after three or four weeks of shaky ratings.
Of course, one needs a subscription to Netflix in order to view this programming, and in this way, it’s really not so much different from HBO, Showtime, et al. Netflix costs about the same per month as tacking a pay channel onto your cable bill, but with the great difference that one can access Netflix without having to also be tethered to a cable or satellite provider, all you need is a computer (or streaming device) and wifi. (You see this a la carte mentality through streaming devices like Roku and Apple TV, and even with HBO trying to decouple its wildly popular HBO GO app from a cable subscription – this wild proliferation, more than anything else, is the true revolution here).
Whether House of Cards wins any Emmys or not (pro tip: it won’t, or at least not for Best Drama), its nomination marks the grand reveal of a seismic shift already well in progress. It cements the viability of what is, if not a truly revolutionary idea, at least a reconfiguration of some old pieces into a new machine, one that will offer an increasingly more prolific, maybe better, alternative to the traditional models. And who knows, someday what Netflix has wrought may become the new norm: Amazon is already jumping into the game (allowing even greater viewer “choice” by allowing the audience to vote which pilots go into full production), and Hulu already has a slew of successful, if relatively unknown, shows. If the ball gets rolling on this, in five or ten years the whole notion of “Primetime” Emmys may become anachronistic or at least a misnomer, giving way to a TV landscape free from antiquated constraints of time and space and device, where new content emerges seemingly out of thin air, overnight, all at once.