What Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ Means for the Future of Television Without Television

By  · Published on February 5th, 2013

Television-after-television had to happen at some point. Of course, television-like content that is exclusively available on the Internet isn’t anything new – webisodes have been a thing for quite some time now. What is new about Netflix’s House of Cards is the fact a program under the rubric of “quality television” – a category of prestige televisual entertainment established by HBO, Showtime, AMC, and some broadcast programs – has now been made available exclusively on the Internet. Not only is House of Cards exclusively on the Internet, but it’s only available via a single subscription outlet.

Now that it’s premiered, what could its existence (and potential success) imply for the future of both television programming and what’s now expected of audiences? Furthermore, if a program exists independently of televisions altogether, what exactly do we consider to be “television” now?

House of Cards has all the trappings of a heavily promoted HBO program. It’s got high production value, a name cast, and a well-known director at the helm. In other words, like anything from Luck to Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards has cinematic credentials: sleek, medium-shot-heavy cinematography, and marquee names like Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and David Fincher.

It’s television tailor-made for the age of letterbox HD broadcasts and DVR. It just isn’t on television.

Despite having the web as its home, Netflix’s exhibition model in some ways resembles HBO’s: the series is supported not by “ratings,” but by a subscription system, and thus access is entirely restricted to directly paying the network that shows and, as in this case, produces it.

House of Cards is the most high-profile example of the phenomenon of television-after-television thus far. Even when Netflix debuts a fourth season of Arrested Development in May, it won’t resemble such a uniform mode of distributing televisual content. Arrested Development was once a traditional broadcast show, will be a web-based show, and then will (fingers crossed) become a movie thereafter. If such an experiment is even remotely successful, it will be a testament of Arrested Development’s ability to evolve, adjust, and appeal to its fanbase across media formats, but it won’t singularly herald a new standard for watching television.

By contrast, House of Cards (while an American remake of a British series) is exclusively net-based, but the model doesn’t seem all that radical. By making an entire season of episodes available at once, Netflix is cultivating the logical extent TV viewing habits that have changed and been catered to as a result of outlets like Netflix. In other words, the first season of House of Cards has made its debut by conforming to the way many of us watch seasons of TV programs after their original airing. By cutting out an original airing, the strategy is simply one step removed.

Ironically, anyone who has their Netflix account synched up to their television set can watch House of Cards on the very device it was removed from. House of Cards is only “television” in the way that we recognize television programming everywhere but our TV sets.

Furthermore, broadcasting can be detrimental to a given program’s strengths; some shows that are underapprecaited when they initially air find an audience when they can be seen by other means. Arrested Development seems like an ideal show for an outlet like Netflix because its humor is derived through attention to detail across episodes – something that arguably got lost during the series’ original broadcast. Instead of hoping to stumble upon a fitting audience, however, House of Cards seeks it out directly.

Even though many of us have already stopped watching television with a television, there seems to be something missing from Netflix’s binge-friendly model. Shows that have led to binge watching cults – like Lost, Breaking Bad, and The Wire – often take time to develop a reputation. For many viewers, watching these shows occurs years after their initial debut, subsequent to hearing about the quality of a show through awards buzz or word-of-mouth. In other words, there’s an expectation of immediacy to this model that might not allow a show to age and grow with its audience.

Sure, House of Cards made its Friday debut on the heels of rave reviews, but this is only one small component in the formula that makes a show’s reputation.

Furthermore, there seems to be something experiential lost in the fact that House of Cards isn’t actually broadcast anywhere. Even with the policed spoiler-free social zones that have come about as a result of respectively experiencing TV on our own special clocks, there’s still a culture of devoted TV viewers that experience television programming as an event.

Take Downton Abbey for example. Despite that the third season already aired across the pond, is available to purchase via DVD, and can likely be easily found streaming through less-than-legitimate means, every non-superbowl-Sunday for the past few weeks has inspired ample evidence on Twitter week in and week out of a devoted Downton fanbase who watch the show as it airs on PBS.

Sure, without the social media factor, this is essentially the classic water-cooler experience of television as something we watch privately but share publicly. But with broadcasting taken completely out of the picture, sharing a television event in this way is out of the question. With House of Cards, users are free to binge-watch or simulate a broadcast by parsing out episodes week-by-week (as I am), or anything in between, but this open choice of viewing options also entails a limitation of choice: whatever you do, sharing a mass media event is, maybe for the first time, not an option.

Of course, these aren’t necessarily bad things. Content-wise, House of Cards doesn’t have the heightened drama of Downton Abbey that lends itself to interactive, shared viewing. House of Cards also, seemingly, doesn’t need to “build” a reputation as the show has been all but birthed with a sense of golden-boy prestige: it’s a risk, yes, but quite the calculated one. And House of Cards isn’t the final step in dismantling TV as we know it. But it is representative of yet another cog in a system of increasing uncertainty. What constitutes “TV” is as malleable as ever.

For example, look at House of Cards’s 2:1 aspect ratio. It ain’t cinemascope, but it’s significantly wider than most 16:9 programming, and would likely look strange on a traditional 4:3 television set. This is clearly a ratio not only made for a cinematic eye like Fincher’s (the framing of negative space is the first two episodes makes for some of the best cinematography I’ve seen on “television” thus far), but also for the computer screen. The ratio, which has rarely but significantly been used in film (see: Apocalypse Now Redux), has a strange in-betweenness to it, as if the frame is literally attempting to step out of the confines of a television set, but yet at the same time not become confused for cinema.

And that in-between space is exactly where House of Cards precariously stands.

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