Kevin Spacey gave this speech (which appears pretty savagely edited here, but still gets the point across), addressing what he observed in the process of making the U.S. version of House of Cards. The major thrust of what he talks about is that audiences want content. They don’t care what platform you deliver it on so long as you deliver it. They do, however, care about access and control. It’s great to hear this coming from such a popular voice in such a broadly-received public forum, although it’s pretty much something you would have already heard if you’d been paying attention to the subject in, say, 2004.
Brushed over with less detail is the idea that House of Cards and its fellow originals (Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove, and even the first revival season of Arrested Development) represent a disruptive shift in American media, even if it is a model that’s familiar to the rest of the world.
Namely, it’s the pilot season.
It’s having enough trust in a team and a concept to give them the opportunity to tell a story. Not just a 30- or 60-minute story, but the kind of story that can only be told in a season of a television series. For reference, the first season ofLOST was twenty-five episodes long. At an average running length of 44 minutes (after removing commercials), the first season alone represents almost 18 1/2 hours of story issued in under a year. The full six-season run is a whopping 89 hours of story (actually, 88.7).
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy took seven years to put out just over seven and a half hours of story.
(And if you want to argue, “Yes, but LOST really fell apart toward the end,” then you should know that I will happily argue the same about The Dark Knight Rises.)
Now, the cost of an entire season of LOST is an awful lot of money to gamble on a series’ success. But every series is a gamble — including the ones built on big-name draws and solid focus group data. Just ask the network execs who greenlit Whoopi — they’ll be happy to tell you the data they had that showed it just couldn’t fail. If you can get a reasonable budget that doesn’t break the network’s bank for an entire season, it’s no less of a risk than any other show.
What you really have to be concerned with is time. And for online delivery, that’s getting to be less and less of a concern.
See, a CBS affiliate cannot program more than 24 hours of content (including advertising) a day. Some of that is going to involve content they’re mandated to carry — local interest broadcasts, educational content, and the like. If CBS were to accept every pilot they were pitched in a year, they would wind up with more content than they had time to air.
Netflix, meanwhile, has no such limitations. Nor does Hulu. Nor does Amazon Prime. Nor any of the other online-first companies. Their broadcast day is as large as they care to make it, because their broadcast day is decided on by their users — not the laws of physics. Their users decide which shows are important to them and how important it is to watch them quickly or slowly. You can build an actual “broadcast day” out of online originals, or you can sit down and watch a series start-to-finish with no interruptions.
This makes these services attractive. And with an expanding user base hungry for new content, storytellers who can take a smaller budget and crank out 10+ hours of material are well worth the risk for one full season. That means potentially no money wasted on expensive pilots that may never see air — every show can be guaranteed at least one season to make their case for continuation, and a single season is easier to monetize in the long run than a single episode — even if the series is a flop.
And what the networks don’t seem to realize yet is that they have the potential to compete.
They have Hulu. They have — in many cases — their own online-streaming platforms. They have cable-bound “Go” services. They have the same online outlets that the online-first guys have.
And for their network? Their bread and butter? Now they have the potential to launch tried-and-true properties.
The BBC has been known to move shows from channel to channel as they grow in popularity, shifting the shows to outlets that have larger audience numbers (and can, therefore, offer a larger operating budget).
Next season, CBS could offer a series of CBS.com “exclusives” — shows that air not on the network itself, but on their website. When they decide not to pick up a show for the network, they can offer a low-ball budget to the producers for an online-original run.
Then, watching the analytics on their online series, they can determine what grabs an audience and what doesn’t. Those that don’t grab an audience simply aren’t invited back for a second season — but their first season is still there for DVDs and deals with other online streaming outlets.
Those that do grab an audience can continue for as long as they have eyes on screens or as long as the producers have a story to tell.
And those that grab a massive online audience?
Well, gee — you have this broadcast network that would love to take a look at tested properties. Especially ones that they already own…