Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in a scene from Netflix's "House… (Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix )
There are a lot of locals with high hopes for the new political thriller “House of Cards,” given that the Washington-themed show is likely to become the largest production ever filmed in Maryland. And there are a lot of people outside the Beltway who are just as interested in how the series fares: Its success might alter the concept of traditional television programming.
It’s safe to say that the entire TV industry will carefully track the launch of the show, which premieres on Netflix on Friday. The online subscription service behemoth has dabbled in original content before, but it’s hoping to make a big splash with its first major original series. Filmed around the Baltimore area and based on the 1990 BBC miniseries of the same name, about a devious politician clawing his way up the ladder, the project has big names attached, including director David Fincher (“The Social Network”), writer Beau Willimon (“The Ides of March”) and two-time Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey. Netflix reportedly paid around $100 million to land the project.
No pressure or anything.
Netflix, which has 27 million streaming subscribers in the United States who can use its service to watch TV shows or movies whenever they want, is taking the idea of personalized viewing even further with “House of Cards,” which is produced by independent studio Media Rights Capital. Instead of doling out one episode per week, broadcast and cable television-style, all 13 episodes of the show’s first season will be available on the day it premieres. (The company will try the same strategy with “Arrested Development,” the cult-favorite sitcom that Netflix is bringing back to life in May.)
Netflix stealthily tried the same trick in early 2012 with “Lilyhammer,” a quirky Norwegian crime drama that had been available only in Norway. Netflix acquired the rights and aired the show in America for the first time. Though there was minimal buzz, it showed there were viewers who had an appetite for gobbling up an entire season of a series at once.
So, networks making viewers wait for episodes, with endless repeats or month-long hiatuses? That’s becoming increasingly “out of step” with the way people watch television, theorized Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.
“I feel like what we’re seeing is a huge generational shift toward on-demand,” Sarandos said. “And Netflix is a pure on-demand product.”
Thus, the stage is set for “House of Cards.” Several unusual factors give the show an advantage, Sarandos said: Things as small as not having to waste time catching viewers up on what happened last week can add up to extra minutes of storytelling.
On a larger scale, Netflix was able to devote enough money to order two seasons — 26 episodes — at once. With a guaranteed number of episodes, the show could invest in such things as elaborate, realistic sets. In addition, with clear story lines mapped out, the writers don’t have to invent artificial cliffhangers to lure viewers back week to week.
“When you’re writing for your life on weekly television, you write every episode as if it may be the first or last one ever on television. . . . I don’t think that’s conducive to great writing,” Sarandos said. “This is a long-form commitment.”
Such commitment was a big selling point to Willimon, the show runner and executive producer who also wrote the first two episodes. Even though he originally had no idea if the show would air week to week, he said having all 13 episodes debut at once relieves the pressure.
“With two seasons guaranteed upfront, Netflix was placing its faith in us and not saying, ‘Well, if this doesn’t bring in enough viewers in the first episodes, that’s it,’ ” Willimon said.
What also helped speed the process was “almost complete creative freedom” from Netflix executives, very rare in a high-profile television series, Willimon said. He and his staff wound up creating elements of the show that “would never have gotten past the first or second round of typical network notes.”
Willimon, who wrote the play “Farragut North” — later adapted into the campaign film “The Ides of March” starring George Clooney — was brought onto the project about three years ago, when he got a call saying that Fincher wanted to team up for a remake of the British “House of Cards” miniseries. Willimon had never seen the show, but “it was a pretty good excuse to watch it if it would lead to a conversation with David Fincher,” he admitted.