The business debate about Netflix's remake of the British political thriller House of Cards has focused on binge watching. Was Netflix savvy to have released all 13 episodes of its first original production at once, or would a more traditional roll-out have better helped to build an audience?
I did the binge watch this week. Even though I liked the British version of political deceit and mayhem much more and thought that the Netflix real-life view of politics and journalism was as phony as most other versions on television, I kept watching.
But binge vs. trickle-out is not the obvious debate or headline. What ought to be the gobsmacker is that Netflix has now accomplished that grail of American media life: It's become a television network. Or, shall we say, a home entertainment network. Or, a provider of video content that re-creates the passive-audience behavior most commonly associated with television -- and done this over the Web.
It has formally broken channel power.
Until now, narrative entertainment has been the sole province of network and cable.
The Web, with as much presence and household penetration as television, has somehow not been able to get the audience relationship or the desktop ergonomics or the dramatic structure right to provide plot and characters. The Web is bites, bits, components, functions and non-linear experience. But not a story -- beginning, middle and end.
As media, the Web has fallen vastly short of almost all expectations.
If you can't tell a story, the 19-year commercial Web experience has shown, you can't hold attention for very long, can't offer a point of view, can't control the experience, and, in a sense, never own your audience -- at best, it's a fleeting utility-like relationship.
Neither advertisers nor audiences will pay very much for it.
When the free Web began, its goal was to become nothing less than a remade media, replacing television, magazines and newspapers with a deeper and richer experience. Availing advertising of all sorts of new tools, it logically should have been a more profitable one.
Among reasons this never happened is, arguably, that Web talent and skills were not story-telling talent and skills. Magazine and newspaper equivalents on the Web have only been shadows of the original forms. The truth about video on the Web is that most of it isn't watched.
It's a restless, ever-moving, unsated audience, one with almost limitless choice. Hence, digital media remains a vastly less profitable adjunct to its offline counterpart, which it has progressively undermined.
But Netflix, which began as a DVD rental site, then morphed into a subscription site for watching third-party movies and TV shows, has followed the HBO model and is becoming an original content network.
This means that it has joined the story flow of writers, producers, agents and actors looking to make stories -- people and talent the Web has tried but never quite known how to engage.
It means, ipso facto, a transmogrification of the brand -- from distributor to story teller, from utility to part of the culture, from technology company to show business power.
Its production of House of Cards makes a cross-the-Rubicon business point: The Web is a viable medium for delivering original big-budget video content; it is, as well, a reasonable platform for anybody who wants to bypass cable operators and get into the network game.
True, the costs are steep. But part of the reason the digital world is in the fix it's in -- able to undercut traditional media but not replace it -- is because it has only ever produced low-cost content. We-don't-pay-for-content has been the techy ethos.
The required skills are large. It's a big leap for tech companies that don't particularly believe in content to make good content. The Netflix accomplishment is seminal because House of Cards crosses the story bar -- a tech company is in the content game, really for the first time.
But these hurdles are also an asset: High costs and elusive talent have the business advantage of limiting supply in an oversupplied world, with websites and apps representing an ultimate sort of glut.
Then there is binge. It's not just that audiences want what they want when they want it. Binge is also a change in the way stories are told. Television and movies are conditioned to dribble it out. It's part of the packaged world. A taste of the good comes with a mouthful of the not so good.
But technology has undermined that story-telling form and business model. We don't want the full slate or the whole cable deal, just the grand show. It's from appointment watching to occasion watching.
Television at its best (modern entertainment at its best) offers vast, 19th-century, morality tales -- less entertainments than experiences occupying our real lives. House of Cards, one episode rolling directly into the next, has been my week.
With such epic stories, Netflix can conquer the media world; well, if it can figure out the economics of, say, one a month. But someone will. The competition is breaking open; practically speaking, anybody with lots of money and grand ambition is in the game.
The stakes -- media supremacy, cultural dominance, sheer story power -- are irresistible.
Most Popular Stories
- James Foley Beheading Video Is Real Thing: White House
- McDonald's Packages Coffee for National Distribution
- Apple Stock Bounces Back Big Time
- Faith Groups Divest From Fossil Fuels
- Notes From the July FOMC Meeting
- Castro-Blanco Joins Fifth Street Finance Board
- Honda's Safe Approach Pays Off in Sales
- GE Healthcare Bringing Jobs to Massachusetts
- Ballmer Steps Down From Microsoft Board
- Target Slashes Annual Profit Outlook