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Will Netflix Change Television?

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Netflix has long been thought of as a minor threat to traditional television, and a little bit bigger danger to DVD sales. Launched in 1998, its streaming service is super convenient, available on a wide variety of platforms such as game consoles, smart TVs, Blu-ray players, and, my favorite, TiVo. It also offers a disc service, delivering movies and TV shows straight to your door. It may not have the latest offerings, but it’s far cheaper than cable, and its content library is large enough to keep fans happy for a long time.

With this model, Netflix makes a dent in the entertainment industry, but it doesn’t throw it on its head. After all, many people still turn to services offering fresh content, something usually not available with Netflix.

When the subscription provider almost doubled its prices two years ago, splitting its disc and streaming services, it angered users, sending them packing. This was a terrible business move, and I admit, I was among those who fled. Honestly, I suspected an end to the company. How wrong I was; Netflix recently has bounced back, stronger than ever, mostly as a streaming service.

And now Netflix has expanded its operation to be a content maker, not just a content provider. Last year’s first Netflix original series, Lilyhammer, was well regarded, but posted to little fanfare, and was not widely watched. Now, with the launch of House of Cards last weekend, Netflix has put itself on the map as a destination for great new television.

For those who haven’t yet tuned in, House of Cards is an exciting political thriller starring the great Kevin Spacey as a manipulative Congressmen who has a beef with the president. The outstanding supporting cast includes Robin Wright and Kate Mara.

If House of Cards were to air on television, it would be on HBO. It’s dark and gritty, but not really violent. It features A-list movie stars and incredibly intelligent writing. The engrossing plot keeps one guessing, and the characters are both deeply flawed and highly intelligent, with their power struggles and influence games having far-reaching effects. It’s a character study in power, and also a great way to spend a few hours.

This puts Netflix on par to compete with other pay cable channels. I will be shocked if Spacey doesn’t get at least an Emmy nomination, if not a win. It’s premium-quality entertainment, and the series has single-handedly made Netflix a formidable player in the television landscape.

Rather than rest on its laurels, though, or continue a slow dip into this side of the industry, Netflix has a slate of more programming coming soon. Second seasons have been ordered for both Lilyhammer and House of Cards. The cult favorite Arrested Development, canceled years ago by FOX, will find a new home on Netflix with a brand new fourth season, before moving to the big screen. Ricky Gervais’s British hit Derek is coming, as are two more original series, Hemlock Grove and Orange is the New Black, which star the likes of Jason Biggs, Laura Prepon, Kate Mulgrew, Taylor Schilling, Bill Skarsgard, and Famke Janssen. And this is just their 2013 lineup.

It’s a slate of comedy and drama, new stuff and revered favorites. It’s an impressive batch for a first year, and it means that Netflix is willing to put forward the capital to make a name for itself.

If Netflix begins serving up more new shows, maybe more of their subscribers will flee cable and broadcast. After all, it’s cheap, and the quality is high. It will satisfy their urge to watch shows before they age, and it makes more competition for already established networks. If Netflix were to add in-season episodes of other channels’ lineups, it would quickly dominate.

One advantage Netflix series have over their peers is that Netflix has decided to drop the entire season’s worth of episodes at once. I’ve only made it halfway through House of Cards in the past week, but for many who use Netflix to consume marathons of episodes, watching them back-to-back, they don’t expect to have to wait a week for the next installment, and Netflix doesn’t make them do so.

Yes, this makes sense for Netflix subscribers, but will more traditional viewers embrace such a shift? Absolutely. They can still watch weekly, if they prefer, but if one episode ends on a cliffhanger, they have the option to continue viewing the story. It’s a brilliant stroke.

Now, I’m not saying that this model makes sense for all channels. While cable may order a season at a time, broadcast still often pulls under-performing series after just a couple of episodes. They would not have this option, making more of a financial investment if they were committed to thirteen or more outings.

However, it could raise the content quality overall. If FOX, ABC, NBC, and CBS knew that they had to pay for an entire season before they could even find out if people would watch, would they continue to deliver some of the low hanging fruit that they currently do? This bigger gamble might mean a more careful consideration of what makes it to release.

I’m not saying that Netflix has presented the television model that will dominate going forward, but it has presented one such option. With declining viewers numbers on regular television, and many hating Hulu Plus’s commercials for even the paying subscribers, Netflix is a big player in streaming and Internet-based programming, which is what many young people are interested in. There will be similar competitors, but Netflix has arrived first.

Is this a good thing for television? I think so. Any player that goes after worthwhile stuff, and forces others to rethink or reorganize, is welcome in the marketplace. Competition is good, and Netflix is performing well. I look forward to finding out the next development in this course change.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for BlogCritics.org and Seat42F.com, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website, jeromewetzel.com