The labels are useless

You may have seen this by now, but it’s absolutely worth highlighting. Kevin Spacey, star of the Netflix-original drama House of Cards, talks about giving the consumer what they want the way they want it.

It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is.

For those that like to read instead of listen:

The relief for all of you is that I am not someone with an important job in broadcasting using this speech to audition for an even more important job in broadcasting.

House of Cards, creatively, actually, follows the model more often followed here in Great Britain. The television industry here has never really followed the pilot season looked to by the networks in the United States as a worthwhile effort. And now, look, of course, we went out to all the major networks with House of Cards and every single one was interested in the idea, but every single one wanted us to do a pilot first. Look, it wasn’t out of arrogance that David Fincher, Beau Willimon and I weren’t interested in having to audition the idea. It was that we wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time, and relationships that would need space to play out. And the obligation, of course, of doing a pilot, from the writing perspective is that you have to spend about 45 minutes establishing all the characters, and create arbitrary cliffhangers, and basically, generally, prove that what you’re setting out to do is going to work. Netflix was the only network that said “We believe in you. We’ve run our data, and it tells us that our audience would watch this series. We don’t need you to do a pilot.”

By comparison, last year 113 pilots were made, 35 of those were chosen to go to air, 13 of those were renewed but most of those are gone now. And this year, 146 pilots were shot, 56 have gone to series but we don’t know the outcome of those yet, but the cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300 and $400 million dollars a year. That makes our House of Cards deal for two seasons look really cost effective.

Clearly the success of the Netflix model, releasing the entire season of House of Cards at once proved one thing: the audience wants the control. They want the freedom. If they want to binge on House of Cards and lots of other shows, then we should let them binge. I mean, I can’t tell you how many people have stopped me on the street and said “Thanks, you sucked three days out of my life.” And through this new form of distribution, we have demonstrated we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn. Give people what they want. When they want it. In the form they want it in. At a reasonable price. And they’ll more likely pay for it than steal it. Well, some will still steal it, but I think we can take a bite out of piracy.

So, I predict that in the next decade or two, any differentiation between these platforms will fall away. Is 13 hours watched as one cinematic whole any different than film? Do we define film as being something two hours or less? Surely it goes deeper than that. If you’re watching a film on your television, is it no longer a film because it’s not in a theatre? If you watch a TV show on your iPad, is it no longer a TV show? The device and the length are irrelevant. The labels are useless, except, perhaps, to agents and managers and lawyers, who use these labels to conduct business deals. But for kids growing up now, there is no difference. Watching Avatar on an iPad or watching YouTube on a TV or watching Game of Thrones on a computer, it’s all content. It’s just story.

And the audience has spoken. They want stories. They’re dying for them. They’re rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus, and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, facebook, make fan pages, make silly gifs and god knows what else about it. Engage with it with a passion and intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. And all we have to do is give it to them. The prize fruit is right there, shinier and juicier than it’s ever been before. So it will be all the more shame on each and every one of us if we don’t reach out and sieze it.

And I want to leave you with the words of a man as good as any to address the nexus of commerce and art, Mr Orson Welles, who once said: “I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I just can’t stop eating peanuts.”

Thank you.