‘House of Cards’ is a house divided

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I don’t have the time or the stamina to binge-view all 13 episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards. But based on the couple I’ve watched, I think I would find if it a very weird experience if I had.

Netflix is openly encouraging binge-viewing. In his fourth-quarter letter to shareholders, CEO Reed Hastings waxed rhapsodic about the possibilities:

Imagine if books were always released one chapter per week, and were only briefly available to read at 8pm on Thursday. And then someone flipped a switch, suddenly allowing people to enjoy an entire book, all at their own pace. That is the change we are bringing about. That is the future of television.  That is Internet TV [snip].

Because of our unique strengths, we can commit to producing and publishing “books” rather than “chapters”, so the creators can concentrate on multi-episode story arcs, rather than pilots. Creators can work on episode 11 confident that viewers have recently enjoyed episodes 1 to 10. Creators can develop episodes that are not all exactly 22 or 44 minutes in length. The constraints of the linear TV grid will fall, one by one.

For viewers, Internet TV is a better experience because of the freedom and flexibility it provides, and in the case of Netflix, the lack of commercials. In addition, by releasing our shows on the same day across all of our markets, we will delight international members, as usually, they have to wait months after a U.S. premiere to enjoy the same content.

Essentially, Netflix is releasing House of Cards, and asking subscribers to experience it, as a single, 13-hour movie. So why is it still packaged into episodes? The episodes may vary in length, and there are (apparently) multi-episode story arcs. But each one more or less follows the traditional conventions of episodic television. Each episode has a beginning, a middle, and an end (even if some endings may be cliff-hangers) and has the same narrative rhythm as ordinary, episodic television.

If it’s like a book, it appears to be a pretty repetitive one.

Most people who watch House of Cards, of course, probably won’t binge-view all 13 episodes, because most people don’t have time for that. They’ll watch two or three at a time as with most TV shows on Netflix. But therein lies the paradox for Netflix.

There are reasons for the narrative conventions of episodic television; they arose to correspond with the way people typically experience episodic television. I’m not sure you can change one without radically changing the other.