Netflix (s NFLX) confirmed today that it has officially licensed the upcoming series House of Cards, launching its first foray into original programming. In a blog post, content chief Ted Sarandos wrote that the video subscription site will get exclusive access to stream the new series, which stars Kevin Spacey and will be directed by David Fincher, beginning in late 2012.
This is the first time Netflix has directly licensed a series from a production studio, rather than gaining rights to those series through a deal with the broadcast or cable network that originally aired the show. It will also be the first time that Netflix has bid on a piece of content against other networks that might want rights to the show themselves. As we’re noted before, that could give it some independence from — and some leverage against — those same content partners when future deals come up.
But the bigger news here is what could be a change in the way we think about TV production and consumption, and a paradigm shift of the kind we haven’t seen since HBO led the migration of video consumption from broadcast TV to cable. Early cable networks were fraught with a dearth of worthwhile programming to watch; for years it seemed many cable networks existed solely to rebroadcast syndicated content that had run years — or even decades — before on broadcast TV.
But HBO changed all that. Not only did HBO run movies that people wanted to watch — and at a reasonable time after they had appeared in theaters — but the network also produced high-value original programming. It mainly started with sports and documentaries, but it wasn’t long before HBO was creating hit original scripted series like The Sopranos and Sex and the City. HBO changed the way people thought about cable, and as a result a number of other cable networks changed their content strategies.
We’re now in a golden age of cable programming, where even the basic cable networks investing heavily in original scripted series. AMC, which until recently was known mainly for broadcasting old movies that no one watched, has had a number of hits like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and most recently The Walking Dead. FX, a new upstart cable net from News Corp (s NWS) has managed to gain big audiences fast with strong original programming that included The Shield, Rescue Me and Justified.
In the same way, Netflix is hoping to shake up the online video market by shelling out for a TV project that looks like must-see programming. While Netflix is not the first to distribute a first-run series online, this is the first time that an online-only service is distributing content that people might actually want to watch. Prior to House of Cards, “exclusive online series” and “feature films” that ran on sites like Hulu and YouTube (s GOOG) did so primarily because they couldn’t find distribution anywhere else. The web wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be — it just wasn’t cable or broadcast.
But House of Cards is different: It stars Kevin Spacey. It will be directed by David Fincher. It comes from a British miniseries that is pretty popular (at least on Netflix). And it will carry the same type of production values one might expect from a cable TV series on HBO or Showtime. In other words, it’s a step above what viewers have come to expect from exclusive online programming.
So can Netflix revolutionize the way we think about online video in the same way that HBO changed the way we thought about cable TV? We sure hope so. As noted before, one of the main concerns from content producers is that by drawing eyeballs away from TV, Netflix could destroy the engine through which quality content is funded. But this deal shows that Netflix and other online properties — like Hulu, and maybe even Amazon — (s AMZN) could fund the next generation of video hits.