Will Netflix original programming threaten "linear TV"?

By Alex Iskold , written on January 31, 2013

From The News Desk

On Feb 1, Netflix, the company that 15 years ago challenged the conventional wisdom in video market, is about to do it again.

Netflix will release the first season of its first original series, "House Of Cards," which features Kevin Spacey as a corrupt Washington politician. The show is already getting acclaim because of the great script, twists, stellar acting and polished execution.

At first, this might seem like no big deal. HBO and Showtime have been thriving on ad-free home grown content for years. Other online video players -- YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon -- are planning and releasing original content too.

What is entirely new here is the way Netlfix is doing the release. On February 1 all 13 episodes of the Season 1 will be instantly viewable.

The ratings still matter

The traditional TV model is based on releasing one episode a week, stretching the season for about 3 months. For Netflix, that model does not make sense because it does not make money on advertising. Instead it charges a subscription fee and delivers all of its content to you on demand. So instead going the traditional TV way for "House of Cards," Netflix is going its own way.

But how will this move be received, and what will be the impact on the show's rating? Despite this not being measured by Nielsen, there are still audience-size-per-episode metrics, which basically map onto ratings and ROI. As June Thomas pointed out in her post on Slate, premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime do care about ratings, because week-over-week ratings can be tied to subscriptions.

That is exactly what Netflix would have to do to measure the ROI. But there is a critical difference – there is no week-over-week here. It’s going to be one huge spike and then resort back to consumption behavior of all other shows available on Netlfix.

Killing the water cooler

Beyond the challenge of measuring the ROI, there is something intuitively wrong here. For better or worse, the modern human has been trained to anticipate the show coming in weekly bursts. We have the love-hate relationship with the wait. We can’t stop talking about the shows every week. We yell threats into the physical television set right after a season finale of our favorite show. We then Tweet the same threat too.

The big trick about good content is storytelling and emotions. It’s why we love it and why we put up with ads and the wait. "Homeland," "Mad Men," "Fringe," "Sons of Anarchy," "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones," and "The Walking Dead" all make us think, make us laugh, make us argue with each other face-to-face and online. What Netflix is doing with the "House of Cards" kills that water cooler.

Because we can’t all watch show episode by episode at roughly the same time, we won't discuss it in the same way. Social "water cooler"-type conversations exist if we are “co-viewing” the same content at roughly at the same time. Events like the Superbowl and Grammys are exciting, because everyone is watching live. But so are all great shows – everyone is watching live or nearly live, because you don’t want to be the only one who does not know what happen.  Because you are addicted to that content.

Because of the way Netflix is doing the release, it is hard to fathom that community will form around the show -- at least in a traditional sense. There will be a bunch of separate people shouting, but there will not be a strong community. That can only form over time. And without community, can the show be awesome? Can it be as soulful? Hard to say.

Getting to scale

Reed Hastings is going to read this and agree. Still, he will say, it does not matter. His strategy might not be about turning any given show into a social mega hit. The strategy might revolve around retention and mimicking HBO’s model of great original content to compensate for the fact that he is having hard time securing all of the great content that is already out there.

Here is an interesting question – how many great shows does Netflix needs to have you totally hooked for entire year? The answer is 12 – exactly one per month. Why? Because you are physically not going to be able to consume more than one of these per month. Some of us might, but most of us have other things to do. (For reference, HBO has less than 10 new shows in the running).

Netflix is already planning to release "Arrested Development" later this year. Getting to 12 is now equal to getting to 10. "House of Cards" might be a first move in clever chess game to roll over Netflix users into the on demand world, while others battle over rights and who can stream what and where.

Linear TV vs. linear time

So does this mean that the release of "House of Cards" poses a threat to linear TV? Probably not. The linear TV has been declining ever since the DVRs were introduced. Its share is being shaved off bit-by-bit by YouTube, Facebook, and perhaps ironically by its new sidekick -- Twitter. But linear TV is still the king, at least for a foreseeable future.

But even if the linear TV as we know it goes away, what will never go away is linear time. Every evening people in America and around the world will make a choice – what to watch. What they won’t really care about is whether it’s on TV, on streaming, on demand, or online. What they will care about is that its good content, good storytelling.

And with that, for the next 13 hours of my free time, because I am a Kevin Spacey fan and a hopeless optimist, I am going to give this "House of Cards" a chance.

[Image courtesy Esther Gibbons]