Kevin Spacey stars in the Netflix original series, “House of Cards,” an adaptation of a British classic. | AP
NEW YORK — In Netflix’s bid for a flagship original drama of its own — a “Sopranos” to its HBO — the subscription streaming service is presenting a high-class adaptation of a British political thriller offered up all at once, with its first season immediately ready for TV-viewing gluttony.
The show, “House of Cards,” is a bold attempt to remake the television landscape with the kind of prestige project cable channels like HBO, AMC and Showtime have used to define themselves. But “House of Cards,” produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey, won’t be on the dial of that refuge of quality dramas — cable television — but streamed online to laptops and beamed directly to flat-screens through set-top boxes and Internet-enabled devices.
“It’s sort of like we’re the new television series that isn’t on television,” says Spacey.
On Feb. 1, all 13 hours of “House of Cards” will premiere on Netflix, a potentially landmark event that could herald the transition of television away from pricey cable bundles and toward the Internet — a process well under way at YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo and others, but not yet tested to the degree of “House of Cards.”
The show is no low-budget Web series, but an HBO-style production for which Netflix reportedly paid in the neighborhood of $100 million for two seasons.
“When we got into original programming, I wanted it to be loud and deliberate,” says Ted Sarandos, head of content at Netflix, who only will say the cost was in the “high end” for a TV show. “I wanted consumers to know that we were doing it and I wanted the industry to know that we were doing it so we could attract more interesting projects. Doing it in some half way, some small thing, it wasn’t going to get us there.”
The revered British original aired in three seasons from 1990 to 1996 and was adapted from the books by Michael Dobbs, a notable politician and adviser to Margaret Thatcher. It starred Ian Richardson as a scheming, manipulating politician who shared his power-hungry strategies directly into the camera. With a darkly comic antihero as protagonist, it was a forerunner to characters like Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and Dexter Morgan of “Dexter.”
Independent studio Media Rights Capital, a producer of films like “Ted” and “Babel,” purchased the rights to “House of Cards” and paired Fincher with the project, along with Beau Willimon, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of another political drama, “The Ides of March.”
When MRC approached different networks (HBO, Showtime and others), it reached out to Netflix about adding the show to its digital library following a run on TV. But Netflix wanted “House of Cards” as a statement show to launch a crop of original programming.
In releasing “House of Cards” all at once, Netflix will sacrifice the attention generated by weekly episodes to cater to these habits. Sarandos notes that in the first 24 hours that Netflix had the second season to AMC’s “Walking Dead,” about 200,000 people watched the entire season.
Netflix, being outside the purview of Nielsen ratings, doesn’t plan to release viewership figures for “House of Cards.” Instead, they hope to retain and add to its 27.1 million domestic subscribers, a number that hasn’t always grown as quickly as some Wall Street investors have wanted. The audience for “House of Cards” will be immediately global: It premieres in 50 countries and territories.
Transferring the tale from Thatcher-era London to contemporary Washington, D.C., held obvious challenges to Willimon, who sought to broaden the show’s scope. The wife to Spacey’s Francis Underwood, played by Robin Wright as a kind of Lady Macbeth, has been fleshed out. The reporter whom Underwood exploits to both his and her advantage (played by Kate Mara) is now a blogger.
Part of the thrill of “House of Cards,” the original and the adaptation, is its use of direct address. Just as Richardson did, Spacey occasionally turns to the camera to explain his politics. It’s a device famously used by Shakespeare in “Richard III,” which Spacey fittingly played in a touring show before shooting began on “House of Cards” in Baltimore. AP