Analysis

How Netflix channeled Frank Underwood to build an empire

The season 3 premiere of Netflix's buzziest series finds the company at a crossroads

It's easy to forget that there was a time when Netflix was perceived as a savior, and not a threat, to the networks and studios that now consider it a top rival. As the lucrative DVD market began to dry up in the late 2000s, Netflix's eagerness to license movies and TV shows for its streaming service provided a valuable and much-needed source of extra revenue. In some cases, the licensees got as much out of the deal as Netflix did; it's hard to imagine Breaking Bad's final season would have become such a cultural phenomenon without the legions of viewers who caught up through their Netflix accounts.

But Netflix, like Frank Underwood, was always playing a longer game than its competitors understood. Years of streaming content didn't just give Netflix the material on which to build a subscriber base; it gave them reams of data on what its subscribers watched, and how much they watched it. Netflix's intimate familiarity with the content of its would-be rivals, and the desires of its own users, gave them a uniquely focused opportunity to propel themselves into competition.

That's probably why House of Cards, Netflix's first big piece of exclusive programming, has always felt like it was assembled in a lab by someone trying to reverse-engineer the kind of binge-watchable drama viewers crave. With House of Cards, Netflix established the rough template for any upstart network or streaming service trying to launch itself into the prestige television pantheon (and many, many have since made the leap). Get a splashy creative name (like David Fincher) to helm the pilot; cast a well-known, well-liked actor (like Kevin Spacey) in the lead role; and adopt the textured, cinematic production style — if not the substance — of a top-tier drama.

When Netflix first acquired House of Cards — outbidding HBO and Showtime in the process — the Associated Press called it "a big gamble." But in retrospect, questions of quality (and even of viewership) were practically irrelevant; as a piece of branding, House of Cards has been the great success story of the modern TV era. In one swoop, Netflix defined itself, in the eyes of both creators and subscribers, as the kind of company that spends serious money on shows like House of Cards, maneuvering itself into the rarified air occupied by HBO, AMC, and Showtime.

Launching its third season today, House of Cards already feels like an elder statesman in an increasingly crowded TV landscape. In his ascent to the presidency, Frank Underwood has also successfully penetrated the popular culture, popping up everywhere from the Emmys to the White House Correspondent's Dinner. When Netflix briefly posted the third season two weeks ahead of its premiere date, it was instantly a major story; when it turned out to be an accident, the company managed to spin the whole thing into a sly joke on its loyal viewers.

But as pivotal a role as House of Cards played in Netflix's ascendency, it's far from the only game in town anymore. The diversity of the company's upcoming roster is telling. Next month, they'll launch Bloodline, another grim drama in the House of Cards vein, with more dramas like Narcos and Sense8 on the horizon. They're quickly moving into original sitcoms, with shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Grace and Frankie, and Wet Hot American Summer. They're investing heavily in a partnership with Marvel, launching four distinct live-action superhero series that will eventually culminate in an Avengers-style mash-up. They're building an entire lineup of children's programming, relying mainly on reboots of once-popular properties like Inspector Gadget, Care Bears, and The Magic School Bus. Though TV has dominated their successes over the last few years, Netflix is taking similarly bold steps into original film: a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, a long-discussed revival of Pee-wee Herman, and sweeping creative partnerships with Adam Sandler and Mark Duplass. Rumors hint at even grander plans to come, including a plan to adapt Nintendo's Legend of Zelda video game franchise for the small screen, in an effort to launch a "family-friendly Game of Thrones." In raw buzz, Frank Underwood may top them all, but it's hard to imagine him doing anything but turning up his nose at a roster of programs so far-reaching and diverse.

The real question: with the past in the rearview mirror, how important is House of Cards for Netflix's future? Having built an empire on its success, this may be the time for Netflix to shove it in front of a moving train. Once-beloved TV shows have seen their legacies permanently tarnished by overstaying their welcome, and critical support for the show, which has always been shaky, continues to wane every year. Unless season three ends with Frank Underwood crowned King of the World, there's no seat of power left for the character to occupy; any attempt to continue the story past its logical sell-by date would only dilute its narrative, hurting Netflix's ability to treat it as a crown jewel in its streaming library.

More pressingly, there are too many other genres for Netflix to conquer. Having made itself into an HBO, the company is busily finding out if it can make itself a SyFy, and an NBC, and a Disney Channel. It's a strategy of almost unprecedented ambition, but that hasn't stopped them before.

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