Kevin Spacey's Anti-Pilot Argument Is Powerful But Flawed

Can 'House of Cards' Model Really Work for Network TV?

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Kevin Spacey's lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival last month has topped one million YouTube views and is becoming the Gangnam Style of the media community.

The actor explained in the speech that only Netflix had the vision and confidence backed by data to green-light the making of "House of Cards," the series in which he stars, without making the investment conditional on the traditional pilot model of the U.S. TV industry. The "all-you-can-eat" strategy of releasing the entire series at once spoke to the needs of a generation of media consumers who don't want their appetites moderated by executives keen to build schedules around their hit shows, Spacey said. This generation wants "what they want, when they want it."

He contrasted the efficiency of "House of Cards" with the high failure rate of TV pilots. In baseball terms, the ratio of big hits to canceled shows gives a batting average that would never get a player to the major leagues. Spacey also pointed to the creative limitations of the pilot. Artistically, he argued, pilots by their very nature represent a compromised narrative. They create artificial cadence in storytelling, because they require the superficial development of too many characters and possible story arcs that act against the organic nature and pace of how great stories best unfold.

In the round, Spacey makes a compelling case, although I am sure he is glad that he and David Fincher had not conceived of "Pan Am" and produced 26 hours of that show, only to have it canceled midseason by ABC. Which brings us to the only flaw in the argument: It is an easier one to make in hindsight, and about one of the best 50 TV shows of the last 25 years. Can we necessarily extrapolate that experience to the whole universe of entertainment, with its need to produce a high volume and broad spectrum of ratings to satisfy viewers and advertisers alike?

The motion picture industry offers interesting parallels. Like TV, it has a significant failure rate and is kept in business by a mix of expensive and profitable franchises and inexpensive but profitable surprises whose revenues offset the average and the catastrophic. Films are made without pilots, with the only compromise being the time allowed for telling the story, which normally is restricted to 250 minutes rather than 13 hours.

It seems that the future model lies at the intersection of great storytelling and technology. One prescription could be as follows:

  • Make the pilot (or two or three episodes) to mitigate some risk
  • Make the pilot(s) the authentic first chapter(s) of the story, rather than 50-minute trailer(s); no compromise.
  • Use social media and YouTube as platforms to create layers of context, back story and future story, allowing the distributing platform and the producers deeper insight (through data) into the likely success or failure of the project and allowing the viewer to join the conversation earlier, which likely will increase tune in.

Clearly this does not resolve consumers' desire to binge-view all episodes in the first window of release, but it allows peole who aren't available or prepared to DVR the show the opportunity to binge in the second window. It's also worth noting the source of all the other content on Netflix, Amazon and elsewhere. It's a blend of the successes and failures of content makers over generations -- the function of a model that tries, errs and sometimes succeeds hugely. Above all it's a function of the willingness and financial wherewithal of backers to take risks.

In the end "House of Cards" was a success. The path of decisions that led to making it was a factor; its proven pedigree from the UK version was a help. But to suggest that it's a new, repeatable model that radically increases the batting average of TV series to Hall of Fame levels is going too far.

Rob Norman is chief digital officer, global, at GroupM. Follow him on Twitter.
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