Once upon a time there was a famous rule in screenwriting called "pet the dog," which held that if you wanted to make viewers like a character, you would show him petting an animal early on in the film.
The new Netflix series House of Cards, directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, opens with a scene featuring Spacey strangling a dog to death in the street. So perhaps it's time to change the name of the rule to "strangle the dog," a signal to viewers that a series will be highbrow, serious, and edgy.
Netflix has won the buzz war of January 2013. House of Cards — which cost $100 million for two 13-episode seasons — has the world talking and has put the service on the map as a bona fide producer of "quality content." But will Netflix, like others who have ridden the media buzz wave before it, find it is a bridge to nowhere, that gaining the adulation of the media elite very rarely translates into actual viewers?
For HBO, AMC, and Showtime, breaking through the cultural clutter meant generating buzz, which meant catering to the tastes of a very specific group of consumers, who just happen to control the organs of contemporary media. And now, the touchstones for the elite dramatic genre are formulaic and familiar: Start with a charming but morally corrupted protagonist (usually a male) and throw him into a world populated by weak and compromised souls. Mix in explicit sex, characters paralyzed by self-absorbed gloom, and episodes as jam-packed with social machinations as any season of Dynasty. Then intersperse those with non-plot-essential asides to give the show a "novelistic" feel, such as aspirational period or fancy dress, as well as cinematography so far at the dark end of the color spectrum that viewers will take to shining a flashlight at the screen.
To wit: The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Mad Men, Treme and others. With the attention of this viewership comes a bottomless pit of media attention, as journalists and critics stand ever willing to conflate their own tastes with the general zeitgeist. The arrival of each new season of Mad Men is given about 80% more coverage than the typical presidential inauguration. And behind the magazine covers and the Banana Republic collections come the Emmys, the prizes, and the endless "best of" lists.
Heady stuff for a network just trying to break through and distinguish itself from the TLCs and the Animal Planets. And for House of Cards, there is not only a dark drama, but with its streaming, all-at-once delivery, also a technological twist to report. The devoted media coverage has fallen quickly in line, proclaiming the dawn of a new era in the arts.
The only problem with the Mad Men model, however, is that it tends to be an enormous hit with everyone except the viewers. Reading the New York–centered media, you would think America's streets were deserted every time a new episode of the one of these dramas aired. But at its height, Mad Men has attracted all of 3.5 million viewers. The show is repeated throughout the week and picks up more viewers, but that is the base audience for a Mad Men episode. To put that in perspective, the Season 2 debut of Smash is widely considered a catastrophe after drawing 4.5 million viewers. To put that in further perspective, NCIS regularly draws audiences above 20 million viewers.
Crunching the numbers on how this plays out for Netflix, The Atlantic calculated that Netflix will need 520,834 new subscribers to sign up for a $7.99 a year for two years to break even on the show. (Though they might not stick around, given the ongoing problems with Netflix's ever-shrinking catalog.)
The issue is, of course, that while buzz is great, in the end it's no substitute for actual viewers or subscribers, even if those viewers are more "desirable" upscale viewers. In the olden days of media, even at the dawn of HBO, the idea that the viewers would eventually fall in line behind the critics and media elites often panned out (although not always). But today, audiences have too many other choices to have to just go along with other people's tastes. For instance, while the media was cooing over last season's AMC lineup, the A&E cowboy detective show Longmire waltzed in to exactly zero fanfare and got almost double the ratings of a typical Mad Men episode.
And while the AMC stars and their shows pile on the awards show statuettes, no one loves NCIS but the viewers, over 21 million of whom are now tuning in each week. The show's star Mark Harmon just renewed his contract for a reported $700,000 per episode. Meanwhile, CBS blithely shrugs in the face of its own uncoolness.
The fact that coolness may not be the path to enormous television success would not come as news to networks that have walked this path before Netflix. While HBO keeps up its cred with critical darlings like Girls and Treme, its bread and butter now lies with broad-interest genre fare like True Blood and Game of Thrones, shows that are as heavy on the sex and sword fighting as they are on the tortured characters battling their inner demons. AMC pretty much sought to flee the niche business as soon as it got into it, and has done so with the zombie series Walking Dead.
Netflix itself, it should be noted, is prepping a broader plan than its first two releases — House of Cards and the Sopranos-esque gangster drama Lilyhammer — suggest. Its upcoming Arrested Development project plays to a different niche of comedy nerds than the dramas; still a niche, but a different one. However, in the rush to declare House of Cards the road to the future, the world is forgetting how narrow that path is.
All of this is not to say that networks should not make shows that they consider quality fare, or that journalists shouldn't write about them. But when doing so, they should bear in mind that just because the group it appeals to is an elite niche, that doesn't make it any less of a niche.