“House of Cards” may not be the best show on television, but it is in the same league as the best shows, and that makes all the difference. The series, about a scheming Congressman, is basically “The West Wing” meets “Breaking Bad,” with a healthy dose of Shakespeare—particularly, as Ian Crouch wrote, “Richard III.” It’s a typical product of our current golden age of television—dark, expertly directed and acted, and about five times better than the average Hollywood film. “House of Cards” was produced by Netflix, and the New York Times, Wired, and others have written about the company’s panache, especially its decision to release thirteen episodes in one day, all of which could be downloaded and watched by anyone with a computer or an Internet-connected TV. But that misses what makes “House of Cards” a significant moment in media history.
An Internet firm like Netflix producing first-rate content takes us across a psychological line. If Netflix succeeds as a producer, other companies will follow and start taking market share. Maybe Amazon will go beyond its tentative investments and throw a hundred million at a different A-list series, or maybe Hulu will expand its ambitions for original content, or maybe the next great show will come from someone with a YouTube channel. When that happens, the baton passes, and empire falls—and we will see the first fundamental change in the home-entertainment paradigm in decades.
As competition, “House of Cards” is surely not great news for traditional producers such as HBO or CBS, but it’s not an existential threat to them, either. What the show really does is question the existence of the current king of home entertainment, the cable industry. The cable companies make close to a hundred billion dollars a year off our viewing. But if you don’t need cable TV to get good shows when they come out, just what are you paying for?
Like any real startup industry, cable was once a scrappy outsider of questionable legality. In the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, cable attacked broadcast’s domination of the television market with a value proposition that depended on signal quality (compared to rabbit ears), more choices (thirty channels!), timely news (CNN), and access to exciting new types of content, like MTV, ESPN, and the Playboy Channel.
Over the years, as cable’s prices have increased, each part of that value proposition has withered. In an age of too much information, offering more channels has come to feel like more of a bug than a feature. The Web and Twitter have definitively replaced cable as the breaking-news source of record (recall CNN’s report that the Supreme Court had struck down Obamacare). You can get most television shows—after some delay—on DVD or from an Internet site. You can also get them right away on pirate sites. Pornhub bought the Playboy Channel in 2011. So, to repeat the question, just what are Americans spending a hundred billion dollars on?
Before last week, the precise answer was live sports and up-to-date, convenient delivery of the best shows. But if “House of Cards” proves a workable model, cable television will, over time, be down to one thing: live sports. Sports programming is, to be sure, a Gibraltar. But sports, and the power of inertia, are the last two refuges for the cable industry and its increasingly unwatched channels.
That doesn’t mean the cable industry has no prospects. But this year or next, cable companies will have to accept that they are no longer the gatekeepers for the best content. It means, eventually, that the industry will probably have to embrace the idea of simply carrying the content of others (which was its original business model), and essentially function as what used to be called an “Internet-service provider.” That’s not exactly what cable wants to be doing, though there’s still plenty of money to be made in that line of business.
For geeks, it has been long been clear, as a technological matter, that the Internet’s delivery models ought to eventually make cable TV obsolete. But the best technologies don’t always win. It takes breakthrough moments for things to happen; for, ahem, the house of cards to fall.
Very interesting article, and the show is AMAZING! Who else is eating it up?
It would be awesome if this really were the future of television imo, never having to wait a week for a new episode omg please give that to me!.