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How Netflix changed the game with House of Cards

Why did Netflix remake a BBC mini-series from 1990?

by Steve Withers Feb 16, 2015


  • Netflix has spent the last few years shaking up the television industry, changing people's viewing habits and pushing the boundaries of new technology by supporting 4K Ultra HD and High Dynamic Range (HDR).
    However there's one area where they really do things differently and that's in terms of how they commission their own television shows. They have had a great deal of success with home-grown content like Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove and Marco Polo but it's their flagship show - House of Cards - that has garnered the most attention. But, as the third season arrives on our screens, have you ever wondered why Netflix decided to invest tens of millions of dollars in a remake of a BBC mini-series from 1990?

    The traditional approach to developing a new television series is to commission a pilot and then test it with audiences. If the pilot is popular then a full series is commissioned but even then, if the viewing numbers don't materialise the show could get cancelled. This tends to affect the way that series are created and made by the networks, with show-runners reticent to take risks or even plan for future seasons in case they get cancelled. The ruthless nature of network television means that shows have to grab an audience's attention almost immediately and then keep it for fear of cancellation.

    Amazon have produced their own shows as well, including The Vikings, Black Sails and Extant, as well as save other shows from cancellation such as the BBC's Ripper Street. They have also put a spin on this approach by making pilots that they then offer for their subscribers to stream and comment on. If a show proves to be popular, then a full series is commissioned, such as Bosch or possibly The Man in the High Castle. This approach has proved very successful with Alpha House and Transparent both becoming critical and commercial hits. In fact Transparent and House of Cards have helped shift the balance of power by becoming the first internet-produced shows to win Emmys and Golden Globes.
    Netflix monitor and analyse the subscribers' viewing habits, not only to provide a better service but also to develop new shows.
    Amazon and Netflix, like HBO and others, commission an entire series upfront, which means that the creators have the opportunity to plan their stories in advance. They also usually make between ten and thirteen episodes, as opposed to the network's usual twenty four, which means the production values are higher. Finally the new kid's on the TV block are giving the producers of their shows far more creative control, free from the constraints of the broadcast networks. The result of this approach are shows like Game of Thrones, which is not only critically acclaimed and hugely popular but also offers production values that rival the cinema.

    Where Netflix differ from the competition is in how they decide which shows to develop and commission. The streaming service monitors the vast amount of data that they accumulate about their users; not only what they watch but how, when and where. They also monitor when viewers get bored and pause or when they're so excited they have to rewind and play the scene again. This information is useful not only for making recommendations and getting people to watch more content on Netflix, but also for developing shows of their own.

    When we met with Netflix in San Fransisco last year they revealed how important this data is, not only for improving the streaming service itself but also for their own shows. The best example is House of Cards which was developed because Netflix noticed that a lot subscribes were watching the original BBC version. They also noticed that those same subscribers also watched Kevin Spacey films and movies directed by David Fincher. As a result they commissioned a US version of the series with Kevin Spacey in the lead role and David Fincher directing the first two episodes.

    The result was the first internet series to cross over in terms of popularity and critical success, with the show helping to promote Netflix and changing the game as far as TV production is concerned. So the next time you're streaming something on Netflix you might just be influencing what the streaming service decides to make next. Of course depending on your tastes, that may or may not be a good thing but it seems to be working so far. The fourth season of Game of Thrones is now available on Blu-ray and you can watch the entire third season of House of Cards from Friday the 27th of February.

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