The first season of House of Cards, a Netflix-original, Machiavellian political drama series, was released on February 1, 2013. In a little over a month the show has become the most streamed pieces of content in the country, according to Netflix. But with the internet already raving over the success of the show and Netflix frankly admitting to its pre-calculated popularity (essentially based on previous ratings of available Netflix videos) what is there left to talk about?
Well there's what we watch, how we are watching it, and why. Short format vs. long format content is a big divider on the internet these days and Netflix seems to have made all the right moves for long-form viewing. Not only is House of Cards calculated to win as a political drama with its use of technology and self-referential narration, all topped with the well-loved Kevin Spacey, but Netflix specifically chose to release all 13 episodes of the first season all at once.
Unrestricted by weekly release schedules, this model means many viewers are devoting long weekends to watching the show in one go, a practice referred to as binge watching. This phenomenon isn't new to streaming video; it dates back to well before television shows were even released on VHS, with über fans collecting recordings of their favorite TV shows on homemade tapes. While eventually whole seasons were released on VHS it wasn't until soon after the invention of DVDs in 1995 that buying whole seasons of a show became mainstream practice. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was watched by many not during its 'theatrical release' but well after the show was no longer on television. Fans could be found binge watching season after season on DVD.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says viewers prefer this more novelistic approach saying, "We think the season is like the book." With novels the reader can control the speed at which they read the content, and while many readers are happy to keep books to a leisurely pace, series like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones can get readers in a frenzy, tearing through book after book to reach the end (i.e. binge reading).
Like a novel, the show spends no time recapping or refreshing our memory of what happened last time, because it assumes the last episode was watched recently. This kind of devoted attention means the show can make twists and turns in detail-oriented content without fear that viewers will miss something or get lost. It keeps the world alive in the viewer/reader's mind. Another similarity to novels is the buy-in, uninterrupted, ad-free experience. Each hour-long episode is actually an hour long, with no commercial breaks to loosen the grip of the plot or distract from the drama.
And this kind of ever growing complexity seems, from a step removed, to simply be the next logical evolution in television content. Steven Johnson, author of Emergence, wrote in a 2005 New York Times article, "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" (2005), "Televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties."
In graphs explaining story density, Johnson compared TV series from different decades. Here the vertical axis represents the number of individual story threads the viewer needs to follow, and the horizontal axis is time. With this type of visualization, Starsky and Hutch, a TV darling of the '70s, is revealed, even to those who have never seen the show, to be a simple, straightforward narrative, easy to follow with little attention required. The Sopranos, a show loved by early 2000s audiences, by comparison, maintains a main storyline, as seen in the almost complete line of boxes near the bottom of the graph, but also knits in bits of other stories as it goes, making for a more dynamic, engaging and attention-demanding show.
But House of Cards with its ad-free, long-format, binge-watching structural envelope allows for even higher levels of complexity than allowed by the old television format. The streaming environment provides space for more information and heightened complexity in both story lines and character development. Only the slow improvement in viewing technology seems to be controlling the speed at which we move from Starsky and Hutch to House of Cards. Whatever is the next, newest content viewing platform, we can be sure even more richly variegated stories are on their way.