Netflix's House of Cards: Waving goodbye to regional distribution and good riddance
Various American shows have been bringing down the house of late, and US political drama House of Cards has all the makings of a big success. Kevin Spacey in his first lead TV role? Check. David Fincher on board as producer? Yes indeed - the big guns have been rolled out.
Pocket-lint was invited to a preview ahead of House of Cards' official 1 February release. But far from using this space to critique the show - a re-working of the 1990s Machiavellian BBC series and a triumph to watch, despite Spacey's quirky audience-facing soliloquies - it's the simultaneous global release that's pleased us best. Seriously.
The global release of the series is 1 February and you won't find House of Cards on the Beeb, Sky, Virgin or any of the usual ports of call. Nope, this is a Netflix series that any of its subscribers can watch wherever they happen to be in the world. Is this the beginning of the end for the ailing staggered international release model? We sure do hope so.
When House of Cards lifts its virtual curtain it's not going to hold back either. The entire series - that's all 13 episodes - will be available from day dot to watch at your leisure in HD. Limit yourself to one episode a week or plough through the full 13-hour set in a weekend of madness. It's up to you - a bit like having the full virtual boxset in, er, virtual hand.
These ideas aren't necessarily a revelation - tech savvy consumers have been calling for simultaneous releases for a long time now. It's more the fact that the eureka lightbulb moment has been acted upon, partly in an in your face piracy moment, and partly because Netflix is the company that's also commissioned the show and therefore has the control. But its made the right decisions.
Inevitably the wider issue of piracy comes to mind. We Brits, and much of the wider world, usually have to wait an age before shows make their way over the Atlantic. The same with plenty of movies too. It's not as though we need to send sail boats over the water with reels of film any more, this is the 21st century after all. You know, the age of the internet.
If something exists but can't be purchased because of regional restrictions then what do a large number of people - or, more accurately, prospective customers - do? They brush legal relevance aside and go and download the stuff they want to see. We're not commending such actions nor calling them right, but it's reality as many will openly attest.
What those numbers are like, well, we're not sure if anyone truly knows. We've researched via various sources and the wildly differing figures are most saturated with the MPAA's (Motion Picture Association of America) 2011 claim that an alleged $58-billion is lost from the US economy every year through piracy. Considering the US makes around $40-billion a year from box office and after-sales, including streaming, its argument is that piracy costs nearly two thirds of its business. We won't go into detail here about how that's grossly misrepresentative.
Is it any wonder that Game of Thrones is the most-pirated series ever? Not really. Fans want to watch such shows, and plenty are willing to pay for the privilege - just not years after an original air date. And not everybody can afford Sky.
But hold up a minute, let's turn the wheel. Shouldn't the onus be on the content provider more than the consumer? Let's turn our attention to Spotify for a moment. It's part of a number of streaming applications that have more or less rewritten the way the music industry works, and that's after Apple's iTunes made its grand impact.
Since the Swedish-born Spotify was launched in 2008 it's come to prominence with in excess of 20 million members. More interestingly, according to Spotify's data from December 2012, is that five million of those are Premium pay-for members with a monthly subscription. And those figures are still on the climb. That 25 per cent pay-for membership also coincides with the Swedish Music Industry's 2011 claim that music piracy had dropped by 25 per cent since 2009. Fitting, eh?
There are yet more popular streaming service examples such as Pandora, but as it region-blocks those outside of the States it compounds rather than assists the very issue we're highlighting - it's just as much a part of the problem because of outdated contractual tie-ins.
Netflix has just opened a can of worms; it's like a videofied Spotify in some respects - and we mean that with the greatest of respect. It's as though the company has absorbed Kim Dotcom's "anti-piracy" mantra, as the big man tweeted on 7 January, just weeks ahead of his launch of online storage site Mega: "1. Create great stuff; 2. Make it easy to buy; 3. Same day worldwide release; 4. Fair price; 5. Works on any device."
With House of Cards Netflix has got those boxes well and truly ticked. Could this start the ball rolling to turn around content distribution and fly in the face of piracy? The service is available on all manner of platforms for £5.99 a month, and doesn't tie you down to a ludicrous contract. Whether you're watching on a smart TV via an app, on your computer, Playstation 3, tablet, smartphone, or even the bloomin' Wii U GamePad. There are plenty of other possible access points too.
But this isn't just a gush of praise for Netflix in particular. The service has received some criticism from its users over the amount of current content available, and with competitors such as NowTV and Lovefilm also in the market there are plenty of choices out there to muddle the brain cells. However there's nothing stopping such services from adopting the very same commissioning model. We'd actively encourage it.
The idea's not totally new by any means - in the States there are already subscription networks such as Showtime among others. Subscription TV in the UK seemingly died when Film 4's failing pay-per-month business model went free-to-air (with adverts) in 2006. Sky and Virgin have been the big guns that have scooped up the public on the whole, but with long contracts a must and other free TV services such as Freeview, FreeSat and YouView on the increase is that sustainable outside of live sport broadcast? People don't want to pay over the odds for content they can get elsewhere, particularly not in this economically squeezed climate. Will the UK and, indeed, its consumers adopt a more "pay for what you watch" service? It could be the future.
House of Cards's distribution may not necessarily beat piracy, in that we suspect the show will be illegally available in full by the end of 1 February, but what it does do is put the choice back in consumers' hands. That's an important thing not to be overlooked. While some people will always illegally download there are many others who are simply left with little other choice. Now, finally, it seems that the dots are joining with Netflix's venture. It's what's been missing: fair price, fair release, fair cop we say.