"House of Cards" wants to be shared

urlNetflix launched a new, self-produced, series, House of Cards. There are many things unique about it. First, it is exclusive to Netflix. Second, Netflix released the whole series in one block last week. It is the second bit that I believe may turn out to be a real issue. From the NYT:

Netflix’s release strategy went against the grain of “social TV,” the catchall term for viewers who virtually watch TV together by chatting along in real time on Twitter, Facebook and other Web sites. Jenni Konner, one of the showrunners for HBO’s “Girls,” made the point this way on Twitter on Sunday night: “I don’t know how to talk to people who aren’t at least halfway through ‘House of Cards.’ ” On Tuesday she still had one episode left.

Dave Winer, the Internet pioneer who helped give birth to blogging in the late 1990s, restarted his Netflix subscription so he could watch the series, and immediately noticed the drawback to the all-at-once approach.

“I don’t want spoilers, and I don’t want to be a spoiler,” he wrote in a blog post on Sunday. “We need to invent new communication systems, where only people who have made it through Episode X can discuss with others who have made it exactly that far.”

This is actually the extreme manifestation of a problem that has been growing for decades. As I outlined in a paper presented last month at a BBC Workshop on the economics of broadcasting, there has always been a social component in the demand for television. It was strengthened because television was, in many ways, a non-storable good. But with time shifting and now on-demand, it can be stored. That is something many people want but the cost of that is that people watch television shows at different times. That means that it is harder to talk about those shows with your friends — which was a ‘water cooler’ benefit of watching television and coordinating viewing habits.

House of Cards abandons that mechanism. It is not an issue of finding an our of your time to watch the show and keep up-to-date. It is finding a day of time. The chances that can be done are low and that means that House of Cards becomes a taboo topic. I watched the first episode and want to watch more so I’m not talking about this with anyone. Now some information may help communicate progress but compared to how that was done previously any imaginable solution is hard and complex. Put simply, this type of programming will never really attract socially-driven demand.

Now the NYT piece suggests that House of Cards has to go back to the drip feed. That may help but it ignores the fact that the drip feed hasn’t been working for this type of programming for some time. It is time-shifting that has enabled a series where you must watch each episode to become viable. That is fundamentally in conflict with social coordination though. Yes, word-of-mouth can spread the word but there is that ‘shared consumption’ aspect that is hard to recover. I suspect Arrested Development may fit Netflix’s new model better than a drama series. For House of Cards, the sad issue is not that it is likely to generate enough demand on Netflix but that it may not generate enough demand anywhere.

9 Replies to “"House of Cards" wants to be shared”

  1. Fair points about the ruined water cooler conversation, but I think that conversation has been on the decline for a decade. It has been common to binge on TV series through DVDs or torrent downloads for a long time. For example, I know people who avoided the broadcast of seasons of the Sopranos so they could rush through the DVDs. As a result, some of us have been practising spoiler free discussions for years. The episodic conversation is just another casualty of on-demand media watching. I think its more likely that House of Cards is the new normal than it is Netflix will revert to the pre-digital distribution normal. Its really not so novel, our discussion of TV will just become more like our discussions of movies.

  2. I agree with Nick, you’re over thinking this. The social component may or may not be coordinated. Nick mentions movies, but books are another example. It used to be common to release books one chapter at a time. How did the change to full book release change the book industry? Not much, I would guess.

  3. I believe the full season available at once is the right way for Netflix to broadcast. Its what the consumers will want, and I respect their willingness to try something new. They could have only released one episode a week, thus drawing new users who only subscribed to watch this show into a 3-4 month commitment, instead you can subscribe watch the entire show in 2 weekends then cancel netflix. Netflix needs to differentiate themselves from traditional cable and this is one of the ways then can.

  4. Just to be clear I am not saying on-demand is a bad thing in terms of what it offers viewers. I only ever time-shift. However, the consequence is that it makes social coordination hard. For some programming that may be a serious issue and if so, that may reduce the level of demand so much so that that programming becomes less viable relative to other programming that can tap into the social component more effectively or is less reliant on it.

  5. How is HOC any different than a film or even situations where a person is just now getting caught up on a show? (example: someone who is just starting Dexter).

    1. A movie is about 90 to 140 minutes, HOC is at least about 550 minutes. Most people planning to watch a movie in a cinema will do so in a rather short time frame. Some will watch HOC in one day, some in a week, some in two weeks, and so on.

      Thus avoiding spoilers gets problematic. It’s no longer have you seen movie X or the latest episode of show Y, instead you have to ask if a person has seen episode Z yet, and then try to remember when spoiler A happened.

      The people catching up on a show is a minority. If someone doesn’t start watching a show at once, then that person will likely not watch it at all, especially if s/he is more than a couple of episodes behind.

      Sure there will be the same issue about avoiding spoilers from those who are catching up, but, those will be a minority, if more shows are released like HOC, then the “water cooler chat” will be rather problematic.

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