Netflix wants House of Cards, its new direct-to-streaming television drama, to get a lot of buzz and positive attention—and that may be more important than how many people actually watch it. The Americanized remake of the classic British miniseries, transplanting the Shakespearian story of a scheming politician to modern-day Washington, is the streaming service’s attempt to compete directly with cable TV services like HBO and Showtime. But unlike those networks, which release ratings information to the public, Netflix plans to keep the viewership numbers for House of Cards to itself after the show premieres on Feb. 1. “Our intention is not to release ratings, and that’s for a very good reason: we don’t have to,” says Kelly Bennett, chief marketing officer of Netflix. “We’ll define the success of these original shows in our own way.”
It could be the culmination of a trend that’s been building in TV for a long time: the shows that survive aren’t necessarily the ones that get the most viewers. They’re the ones that get people talking—even if, in this case, it’s only talking about the network’s refusal to release ratings.–
Not that networks have given up on ratings, especially the ones that still depend on ratings to sell advertising time. John Landgraf, head of the FX Network, told the Television Association that ratings “keep you honest.” Without them, he asked, “how will you determine whether something is a hit?” Dervla Kelly, senior director of corporate communications and network publicity for Shaw Media, adds, “You can have a lot of buzz about a show because it’s controversial or whatever, but there’s got to be some correlation with viewers.” But the strategy some networks already follow isn’t that different from Netflix’s: though they release ratings, that’s not the decisive factor in whether a show gets picked up. HBO’s Girls, which won the Golden Globe awards for best comedy and best actress, is in no danger of cancellation even though only 866,000 people watched the season premiere—a number that wouldn’t even be high for a Canadian show.
Other shows, particularly on cable, have become important franchises without ever becoming popular hits in a traditional sense. AMC rose to prominence on the backs of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, two shows that rarely got many viewers for the network. FX is another network that often depends on a diet of reruns—including network sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men—to get the raw numbers that its award-winning shows, like Louie and Archer, can’t get. Asif Satchu, co-CEO of Media Rights Capital, the production company that makes such shows as House of Cards and The Ricky Gervais Show, points to Showtime’s Emmy-winning Homeland as an example of a show whose importance to the network isn’t solely attributable to the ratings: “The ratings for the show are good but they’re not massive. But the subscribers who watch the series love it. It’s extraordinarily well-received in the artistic and creative community. Those are the things Netflix is looking for. If the subscribers are talking about it, if it gets good reviews and good feedback, that’s enough.”
Why is it enough to have a lot of people talking about a show, even if it isn’t a huge hit? Part of the reason may be that there is a financial advantage in having acclaimed shows, especially for cable networks. Jonathan Friedland, chief communications officer of Netflix, says that networks have to get these shows to stand out from the pack, because “they’re part of a cable bundle, and they have to be able to justify the value of their programming to get carriage fees from the cable operators.” The value of Mad Men to AMC went far beyond the 900,000 or so people who watched the early episodes, because the show was getting great reviews and word of mouth: NPR host Adam Davidson wrote that because of the “small but obsessive followings” of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, AMC was able to charge cable providers more per subscriber.
That’s why it helps for a cable network to have shows that are fan favourites; when fans are obsessive about a show, they’ll make life miserable for the provider that dares to drop the network. And fandom can also be useful in building a brand. While emphasizing that viewers are still TV’s main currency, Kelly notes that “we have big buzz about some shows that drives the success of our networks.” The social-media popularity of the sci-fi drama Lost Girl helped identify the Showcase network with other young-skewing sci-fi shows, like Continuum.
That kind of fan engagement can also help a subscription service like Netflix in creating what Bennett calls its “subscriber requisition strategy,” because the publicity value of a good show goes beyond the people who might watch that specific show. Bennett says that one of the messages of Netflix’s publicity campaign is that “we have this terrific piece of content like House of Cards or Arrested Development, and you can get it only on Netflix, so come on for 30 days and give us a try.” Some shows— especially reruns and movies—are very popular but don’t have that kind of marketing value. Other low-viewed shows can enhance a network’s image: a show like Girls may not get a lot of people watching, but it may have rebuilt HBO’s reputation with Sex and the City fans who like the idea of seeing female-oriented comedy on the otherwise very male-oriented channel.
If networks are starting to see TV shows partly as a tool for attracting publicity, rather than for attracting the maximum number of viewers, it might mean a happier future for adventurous shows. Because many of the measurements of buzz are subjective—Bennett says that Netflix will look at things like “everything from search volume to Twitter volume to the number of comments on our Facebook page”—it gives networks the freedom to pick up shows that they like, even if they’re not hugely popular. “It gives you time to find an audience,” Satchu explains. “You can have a show that comes out of the box with huge ratings expectations, and the show can get lost.” If shows can run a while based on word of mouth or their value to a network’s brand, he says, “studios can do some long-range planning” and take more risks when it comes to investing in expensive shows.
But the buzz-oriented model could have some restrictions. It might lead networks to put an emphasis on high-concept ideas that can get into the media instantly. Shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men got very little publicity before they were produced, getting coverage only once critics published glowing reviews. But, for newer projects, advance hype is essential. HBO made sure that Girls and creator-star Lena Dunham were known to the world before anyone had seen the show, while the half-hour dramedy Enlightened, starring Laura Dern, didn’t get much word of mouth and isn’t likely to last as long as Girls: the New York Times reported that HBO feels the latter show “hasn’t gotten the notice it deserves.” In the new reality, shows that can’t succeed in the publicity sweepstakes may get lost.
Still, with fewer and fewer people watching live TV—“The theory is that this is the future of the medium, live-stream,” says Robin Wright, who plays the Lady Macbeth-like female lead of House of Cards—companies are feeling an increased need to find other metrics to make shows profitable for them. Friedland admits that Netflix still doesn’t know exactly what will constitute a hit when pure ratings are taken out of the equation and shows are judged by their ability to attract subscribers, but he says that they’re going to learn more thanks to these new shows: “The way you’ll know if a show is a hit for us is if we renew it. We are not exactly sure of the acquisition and retention value provided by these programs. But we’re about to find out. This will be a really interesting conversation to have in about six months’ time.”
One thing may already be for certain: if buzz, not viewers, is the most important thing for many TV shows, it could be a problem for some shows that are very popular. The Lifetime cable channel recently cancelled one of its most-watched scripted series, the light legal drama Drop Dead Diva. Deadline writer Nellie Andreeva explained that despite the show’s solid ratings, it “did not fit into the network’s shift toward edgier fare.” In the new TV world, a low-rated show can stay on TV for a long time if it seems like people are talking about it. But if there’s no buzz, it may not matter how many people are watching. Assuming, of course, that the networks are even willing to tell us.