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Why Netflix’s all-at-once strategy for House of Cards was a mistake

As Frank Underwood will tell you, to get people’s attention you need to make them hungry.
By Christopher Mims
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Netflix’s attempt to draw customers away from cable TV networks like HBO by making its own TV shows has been performing splendidly so far, says the company. One in ten of Netflix’s 25 million streaming subscribers has watched its new, exclusive show House of Cards, and on average they’ve watched 6 of the 13 episodes released so far. (These numbers come from a survey conducted by Netflix itself, so we can’t vouch for their accuracy.)

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about House of Cards isn’t its storyline (about the machinations of a US Congressman, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey) but the fact that Netflix decided to make the show’s entire first season available at once. The logic was: Now that people have the choice, a lot of them like to binge-watch their favorite shows whole seasons at a time, rather than on an episode-by-episode weekly drip.

But that was probably a mistake, and here’s why: By giving up the level of constant social media chatter that accrues to shows that are released episodically, Netflix missed out on the kind of sustained conversations that help a show find its widest possible audience.

This sort of thing is difficult to prove, but here are some preliminary data on it from Google Trends, which tracks how many times people are searching for a term on Google. It’s a reasonable proxy for overall interest in a subject.

Google Trends
The volume of Google searches for the shows “Game of Thrones,” “Downton Abbey,” and “House of Cards” over the past two years.

When comparing House of Cards to two recent blockbuster shows, Downtown Abbey and Game of Thrones, the trends are clear: Interest in a show spikes when its season begins (for GoT, that’s April 2011 and April 2012) and builds to an even bigger crescendo around the season finale. Throughout the season, search volume is sustained at a high level. By giving people time to discover a show and/or be cajoled into watching it by their own fear of missing out, episodic TV inherently meshes with viral and social marketing.

Downton Abbey shows a similar pattern to Game of Thrones, just with a smaller audience. House of Cards, meanwhile, has a relatively low search volume at its launch, which is to be expected for a new show. The question is: will that volume increase and be sustained in a pattern resembling that of other shows? And why would it, given that all the show’s surprises have been revealed, and there is no opportunity to commune with millions of other viewers as new episodes air?

As media critic David Carr points out, one of the things that sustains shows like Game of Thrones and Homeland is the social dimension: People tweet along with the show as its broadcast, share their feelings on recent episodes on Facebook, and read episode recaps when they miss the show.

By making it a little too easy for viewers to access all of House of Cards at once, Netflix has missed out on the multiplicative effect that happens when the conversation around a show is concentrated in time. It’s too early to tell if this will reduce the show’s potential long-term audience, but it certainly can’t help.

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