Saturday, February 16, 2013

"Under the Dome," "House of Cards," and the future of television

We're going to talk about CBS's upcoming series based on Under the Dome in a bit, but first, let's consider House of Cards, a $100 million, thirteen-episode series starring Kevin Spacey and produced (and partially directed) by David Fincher.  This is Prestige Television of the sort HBO has been airing and collecting Emmys with for the past two decades.  It would have been right at home on HBO, but HBO didn't have it.  Nor did AMC, or Showtime, or FX, or -- don't even make me laugh -- one of the broadcast networks.

Nope.  In fact, it didn't air on televisions at all.

It debuted on Netflix.  The reigning kings of streaming video paid for the series, and on February 1, they made all thirteen episodes available for viewing.  At once.  The first two episodes were directed by Oscar-nominated director Fincher, and if you liked them and felt inclined to check out the next eleven, you were constrained only by your freetime and your butt's willingness to be sat upon.

Better get used to seeing that, folks; something tells me it's here to stay.
House of Cards has nothing to do with Stephen King, of course, so me writing about it for this blog is a bit of a cheat.  It's a cheat I'm inclined to indulge once in a while.  And hey, guess what?  I can find connections to the King-verse just about anywhere, so with that in mind allow me to point out that contributors to the series include composer Jeff Beal (who scored Nightmares & Dreamscapes), director Allen Coulter (who helmed two episodes of Golden Years), and actor Gerald McRaney (who co-starred in an episode of The Dead Zone).  So there!

House of Cards might have only a tenuous connection to Stephen King, but I think it's going to prove to have a major connection to the future of television; that's a topic that's going to come into play in our discussion of Under the Dome, too, so I feel like setting the stage with a short overview/review is in order.

Here's the setup: Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a Whip in the House of Representatives.  As the series begins, he's in a celebratory mood, because a new President has just been elected, a man to whom Underwood has been very useful during the campaign process.  The President-Elect has promised Francis to name him Secretary of State.  However, that nomination falls through; Underwood is livid, and launches a secretive plot to get revenge on everyone involved in denying him the fruits of his labors.  The depths of that plot will not be fully divulged immediately; let's just say they are broad and ambitious and leave it at that.

Spacey is dynamite as Francis Underwood.  There will be people who are annoyed by his Southern accent, which I've already seen a few folks refer to as phony-sounding.  Maybe si, maybe no; but when you get great lines like "I love that woman ... I love her more than sharks love blood" and "That's how you devour a whale, Doug; one bite at a time," then I honestly don't give a crap if your accent is a little off.  And for the record, it sounded just fine to my ears.

Other people will be annoyed by one of the show's central conceits: the fact that Underwood breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the viewers multiple times every episode.  At times, he'll be in the middle of a conversation, listening to somebody say something, and he'll turn his eyes from them toward "us" for a moment, as a way of punctuating something.  House of Cards is based on a 1990 BBC miniseries (which I really need to watch at some point soon); the conceit of Underwood -- Urquhart in the original -- derives from the BBC version.  It is a device straight out of Shakespearean theatre, which often included characters who addressed the audience.  In fact, the device goes back at least as far as ancient Greek tragedies.  This is not new stuff.

It might seem new to a lot of viewers, though, and some of them will be put off by it.  Others will think it's awesome, and you can put me in that category.  And there's an episode toward the end of the run -- it's either twelve or thirteen, and I don't immediately remember which -- in which the fourth-wall device is used in such a way that I was chilled right to the very core of my being.  It's one of the best moments I've ever seen in any television show; ever.

Other major players:

Peter Russo (played by Corey Stoll), a Congressman from Pennsylvania

Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), Francis's wife

Zoe Barnes (Kata Mara), an ambitious reporter for the Washington Herald

Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), Francis's fixer

Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly), Russo's girlfriend

These are just a few of the important people.  They are all great, and so are many of the others I didn't mention.

The series isn't perfect; a couple of episodes at the midway point seem off tonally in some way, and throughout the entire season you have to buy into the notion that Francis is able to practically see around corners.  But I think the show sells that notion capably, and generally-speaking, I was riveted for all thirteen episodes.  I watched roughly one per day until I was finished, but could happily have sat and watched six or seven at a time; I forced myself to pace it out a bit.

If our pop/tech culture is at a point at which Netflix can deliver a product like this, which is indistinguishable from the "real thing" (namely, series of the type produced by HBO, AMC, the BBC, and so forth), then we are truly on the verge of a quantum shift in how what we think of as Television is produced, distributed, and consumed.

Part of my worry with House of Cards had lain in the technical aspects of the delivery system.  I'd been a Netflix customer a few years ago, but had never used their streaming service because I did not, at that time, have a computer that was worth watching long-form videos on.  I have since upgraded to a decent HP laptop; it's a decent Pavilion G6, nothing top-of-the-line, but solid.  Still many of the experiences I've had streaming videos that are longer than a couple of minutes have been frustrating, so I signed up for Netflix streaming more than a bit skeptical.  This was especially true since interest in House of Cards seemed considerable.

I had zero issues with any of the thirteen episodes.  None; nada; zilch. For all intents and purposes, I may as well have been watching a DVD.

So not only is the quality there artistically, in terms of the product itself; the quality is also there technically, in terms of how the product is delivered.

What I'll say about that is this: if Netflix continues to produce original programming of this quality, they will get my money every month for the rest of my life.  They've already got the resurrected Arrested Development on the way later this year.

What comes next?

Well, for Netflix, who can say?

But let's now turn our attentions to Under the Dome.  When the project was announced a few weeks ago, CBS was upfront about having out-of-the-box intentions for distributing the series.  Lets take a look at a quote from this article:

When CBS ordered the 13-episode series Under the Dome, based on a novel by Stephen King and produced by Steven Spielberg, it wasn’t just an investment in their most ambitious scripted summer programming in years.

It also will be a test of how to create and distribute content to make it a revenue source that can work for audiences when it airs and later in electronic aftermarkets, according to Scott Koondel, senior vp and chief corporate content licensing officer for CBS Corp.

Koondel spoke along with four other panelists at the last HRTS Newsmaker Luncheon of the year, on “Digital/New Media,” held in Beverly Hills on Tuesday.  It was moderated by Michael Kassan, CEO of MediaLink, who said the goal now is to find ways to “use different tools to capture mindshare.”

Koondel said Under the Dome will be a “multiplatform experience for viewers” who can “watch it on different platforms,” including the network TV screen, online and in other electronic forms. “It’s the perfect show,” he said, “somewhat serialized … A perfect example of what we're going to look to do to capitalize” on new business opportunities."

CBS did not immediately clarify what any of this meant in practical terms.  I, frankly, assumed it was a bluff of some sort.

Earlier this week, however, it was announced that CBS had struck a deal with Amazon for Under the Dome to stream exclusively through Prime Instant Video, a service which is available at no extra cost to Amazon Prime customers.  Amazon Prime costs $79 per year; beyond that, I know very little about it.

Here's the vital detail, for me: episodes of Under the Dome will stream on Prime Instant Video, but not until four days after each is broadcast on CBS.  This, then, is a hybrid approach: CBS wants to test the waters of streaming new(ish) content, but also wants to maintain the status quo in terms of broadcasting the series.  Said another way: they can't commit to one approach or the other.

Nevertheless, the very fact that CBS is dipping a toe into the modern era is a sign of just how serious things are getting for the traditional networks.  It might also be a sign that if Under the Dome succeeds for them, they will consider additional steps in the same direction.

So, what will be the measurement for success?  Traditionally, it's been ratings (i.e., total number of viewers), but in this brave new world of streaming content, that suddenly becomes a different conversation.  Take Netflix, for example.  Does Netflix care how many people are watching each episode of House of Cards?  It'd be reasonable to assume that they do, but I suspect they do not.  What Netflix is probably looking at is how many new subscribers they pick up in the wake of House of Cards.

But guess what?  It's likely that they don't even care about that all that much.  What they're going to be really interested in is how many of those new subscribers stick around for more than a month or two.  After all, the first month is free; I've watch all thirteen episodes of House of Cards, but Netflix hasn't made a dime off of me, and if I cancel my account, then they won't make a dime off of me.  They are willing to provide that month upfront, though, because they figure that XX% of new subscribers will stick around for an additional (i.e., paid) month, and XX% for another month after that, and so forth.

And at $7.99 per month, it's a worthwhile investment for me.  When and if we get to the point where Netflix is producing four or five such series per year, then I'd be willing to pay double that.  I'm betting a lot of other people will, too.

So what metric will Amazon and CBS be looking at?  Clearly, it's a similar one; Amazon offers a free 30-day trial, after which you can either cancel or pay for a year's membership, which is $79.  So what Amazon will be looking at is whether they see an increase not merely in signups for Prime accounts, but an increase in the number of people who stick around for the full year.  Under the Dome will air over thirteen weeks, so anyone who signs up at the beginning of the series for a Prime trial will either have to stop watching after the first four episodes or fork over $79 for the privilege of finishing the season.

This, to me, is a dicey proposition.  I do not have cable service.  I used to, and part of me wishes I still did, but the fact is that I don't miss that monthly bill.  Also, whereas I definitely got a lot of value out of having cable, it inevitably led me to watch entirely too many series on a weekly basis.  Again, I enjoyed doing that; but it took time away from other things I love, like reading and blogging and comic books and music and movies and exercising and sleeping.  You can wring your hands all you want, but the bottom line is that a week only has 168 hours in it, and if I'm watching a dozen television series at any given time, that's half a day gone.

So for me, not having cable is just as much a self-imposed restraint as it is a cost-cutting measure.  And anyways, my parents still have cable, so anything that I really want to see, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, I'll go over to their place and watch it.

Care to take a guess as to how I'll be watching Under the Dome?  I'll give you a hint: it won't cost me $79 per year.

Now, if Amazon offered a monthly option on their Prime service, I'd probably spring for that.  I'll be writing reviews of each episode of Under the Dome for this blog, and I wouldn't mind having the option of rewatching each one prior to writing the reviews.  For anywhere from $5-8 per month, I'd sign up.  And yes, I know that that means that what I'm saying is that I'd be willing to pay MORE than $79 per year, provided I didn't have to pay it all at once.  Bottom line for me is, a small monthly expenditure seems more reasonable than a lump sum up front.

Amazon is clearly banking on the idea that there will be enough people who are opposite me that they will turn a profit on whatever they've paid.  CBS is clearly planning on making enough money from Amazon licensing the episodes that it will offset enough of the production costs to make the show profitable via traditional broadcast advertisements.  Will it pan out for either of them?  Only time will tell.  It seems like a riskier proposition than Netflix's, but for all I know it might be eminently more sound.

Thinking about CBS's plan of attack, however, has put an idea in my mind that they might be using this as a test balloon for a different property altogether.  Let me give you a hint:

Would you care to guess who owns the rights to Star Trek in television terms?

If you guessed CBS, go eat a cookie or something; you've earned it.  Yes, it's true, CBS is the proud owner of broadcast/production rights to Star Trek on television.  There have been occasional rumblings about a new series in the years since the J.J. Abrams movie came out and revitalized the Trek brand, but there have been no announcements that anything is formally afoot, even in the preliminary stages.

If I were CBS, though, I'd be considering investing in a new Star Trek television series.  I'd announce that I was producing a thirteen-episode first season, at a cost of $15 million per episode, and I would do one of two things with it: I would offer streaming rights to the highest bidder, or I would simply start my own paid-streaming service, and come up with a viable amount to charge people.

Did I mention that these episodes would not be shown on television?  Ever?  They'd be made available on Blu-ray after six months or so; but otherwise, they would exist only in the world of streaming content.

Tell me that Trekkies wouldn't fork over money left and right to see this new series.  I damn sure know that I would.  Even if it sucked, it'd be a massive success; if it was good -- or (fingers crossed) even great -- then the sky would be the limit for how well that could do financially.

There is nothing tangible to make me think that CBS is using Under the Dome as a means of testing to see how many fans will pay for episodes of a television show as a means of deciding whether to launch a new Trek series in a similar fashion ... but if they aren't thinking that way, then they aren't earning their paychecks.

What might this mean in terms of Stephen King fandom?

Remember last August when there was a brief flurry of stories that Media Rights Capital -- which was at that point ridig high on the massive success of Seth MacFarlane's Ted -- was in talks with Imagie Entertainment to finance Ron Howard's ambitious movie-and-television hybrid adaptation of The Dark Tower?  There has been nothing but radio silence on the topic since then, apart from the occasional vague statement from Howard that he is still trying to get the project off the ground.

Would you care to take a guess as to what one of MRC's recent productions was?

If you guessed House of Cards, go grab yourself another cookie.

There has, so far as I know, been ZERO discussion of Netflix and MRC combining to produce The Dark Tower with Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Imagine Entertainment.  But isn't the very idea tantalizing?  If you found out today that something like that was happening, would you, as a Stephen King fan, be willing to pay somebody a monthly fee for the privilege of seeing it come to fruition?  Or, perhaps, a flat yearly fee?

It's a brave new world we're moving into, in terms of "television."  House of Cards and Under the Dome are two of the most interesting salvos yet.

Speaking of Under the Dome, I don't want to scram before I mention that the two lead roles have finally been cast.

Mike Vogel in Pan Am

Dale "Barbie" Barbara will be played by Mike Vogel, whom you might remember from the cancelled ABC series Pan Am, or perhaps from a co-starring role in Cloverfield.  Me?  I remember him from being the runner-up for the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek.  He lost out on that role to Chris Pine, but you've gotta figure that if Abrams has Vogel in his on-deck circle, Vogel must have had something going for him.  Hopefully, he'll make for a good Dale Barbara, although pleasegod let us only have to hear him be called Barbie once or twice.  That shit annoyed me.

Big Jim Rennie, who will be the series' villain, has also been cast: he'll be played by Dean Norris, whom you might know as DEA agent Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad.

That's him on Boston Legal, though.

If you don't know Norris's work, here's what I'll say about it: he strikes me as being perfect casting for Rennie.  Norris is charming as hell, but also very intimidating, and he'll be able to play Big Jim as someone who can convincingly be evil without making you wonder why anyone would follow him and give him the power he would need to BE evil on a large-scale basis.  Norris is charismatic, and he compelling, and you'll have no trouble believing that he would attract followers; he's going to make an excellent Big Jim Rennie.

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to it.


  1. One regret is I don't own "Hollywood's Stephen King" by Tony Magistrale. He discusses all the adaptations (at least up to November 2003) of King's work.

    I have browsed through it online through amazon enough to know he complains of the constraints of television when he talk about King's work for the medium.

    To be fair, that's something I tend to disagree with him on, and I cite the fact that most of his TV stuff wouldn't seem out of place next to, say, an X files episode as both operate at the same level of uality it seems to me.

    Either way, I wonder what Magistrale would make of the era of Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire (and mind you Freakin' Scorsese directed the pilot to that one!).

    At this point I'm beginning to wonder when all the major studios will start to modify the way the produce and sell their product, especially the impact this might have on stars like whoever it currently in demand at the moment (I don't read the entertainment trades).


    1. Even in 2003, it was basically not true to suggest that television inherently had limitations. I agree with your mentioning "The X-Files" as one example of high-quality tv, but others from back then could/would have included "The Sopranos," "24," "NYPD Blue," and "The West Wing," to name just a few. And both "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica" 2.0 were right around the corner.

      There WERE no inherent limitations. Instead, there were limited imaginations on the parts of the people making the product. But to be fair, at that point in time it still wasn't entirely clear just how big a shift the film industry was in for. A decade later it's a very different story.

      I've felt for a while now that we are -- despite the dreck like "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" -- in the midst of a true golden age for television, and I suspect that moving into online distribution is only going to prolong the era. It's been going for a couple of decades already, and I think you can bank on at least one more.

      It's come at the expense of theatrically-released movies, sadly. Movies don't drive the culture the way they used to. They're not irrelevant, not yet; and probably never will be. But given what television is capable of right now, why wouldn't any cinephile be paying WAY more attention to their tv sets than would have been the case in 1983, or '72, or '63?

      As for your wondering about what impact this will have on star actors... I'd say that impact has been felt for several years now. TV shows are attracting major movie-stars, partially because the material is so good, and partially because a thirteen-episode shoot for a cable company leaves plenty of time left over in the year to go and make a movie or two.

      Good times!

  2. The missus and I are talking about making the leap from cable and into the brave new world. I was just thinking about purchasing some ST: ENterprise DVDs and had a (wholly new to to me) thought: 'Nah, I'd better not, maybe I'll wait for the ultraviolet.'

    I wonder what CBS has in store for this Under the Dome business? Crossover amidst various formats? With the network show just being the entry-point?

    Funny to think the concept is being used as an experiment for the new ways to approach serialized tv; sort of like the aliens experimenting with the folks in Chester's Mill, isn't it?

    Well, sort of.

    I have a gazillion ideas for new Trek shows/ formats. Allow me to use your blog's comments section to offer my services to CBS and all powers that be...

    1. I believe it was announced recently that Enterprise was being released on Blu-ray soon. I wish the Trek series weren't so damn expensive; I don't begrudge them the money, I just don't have the money to spend!

    2. Hmmm, a bizillion Trek ideas. Well got to hand it you that's more than I ever had.

      Closest I got was thinking you didn't need to set an entire show around Starfleet, you could just make a series based around Jeri Ryan's character, she doesn't need to have any connection to any kind of Federation, in fact the show could have a more otlaw feel and nudge Trek for once into more edgy Whedonesque material.

      As for movies, I think they'll always be around, i just keep wondering in what form. Also "Follow the Money" seems to be the operative goal in any and all Hollywood undertakings, so it would be interesting if it were to take the industry into...okay here's where I don't what the hell's next for enter/infotainment.


    3. I'm sorry, just one last thing occured to me. Until recently I hadn't run across any professionally done vlog reviews.

      At least that was until I ran across sites like Atop the Fourth Wall or that annoying Nostalgia Critic guy. Nonetheless, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I've begun to notce a trend of some sort.

      The reviewers behind Fourth Wall and Nostalgia all seem to belong to this company called Channel Awesome, a web based broadcaster specializing homemade web reviews and commentary. If I had to categorize this crowd (from what little I've seen of it) it would have to be as in some way the offspring of shows like MST3K combined with NY Review of, well whatever.
      I could be wrong but it seems that if the economic slump never happened, we probably wouldn't be seeing user produced content like the link below, produced CA and made by a guy named Noah Atwiler. It's stuff like this makes me wonder if this is a pontential sign of where the future is going. Just wondering out loud, sorry.

      Atwiler link (it features a killer theme song):


    4. Oh, I don't think there's any doubt that we'll be seeing way more of those in the future. Podcasting, too; there are plenty of pro podcacts, ranging from Kevin Smith's to Chris Hardwicke's to Marc Marron's, just for starters.

      I've occasionally considered starting a podcast, but I suck at talking, which makes it maybe a less-than-great idea.

  3. Okay, yet another bloody one last thing (points at Bryan McMillan) HE STARTED IT! (ha,ha, nah, just kidding). In fact, I kind of agree with something he aid in the last issues post.

    I can't say i take refuge or anything like that, though if I had to name which era wins top spot as MAIN continuity (the sound you here is the qunetrillion comics fans drawing in closer with avid looks in there eyes, some ready with a comeback) then for lack of better knowledge I'd have to go with Paul Dini's DC Animated universe, especially the Batman one for the most part.

    It' funny 'cause I heard DC requisitioned the Warner DC material and has in fact banned Dini and Bruce Tim or some damn thing like that were no one else except the company is allowed to do anything with the characters.

    Even as a non-comic reader I have to say, isn't that like limiting all the story potential that can be, like, done with these characters?

    Other than that I'm too inexperienced and somehow detatched from it all. I will leave with this, the Atop the Fourth Wall review of The Dark Knight Strike Again parts:



    And, last as well as least:


    To leave on a slightly better note, here's a review featuring what I hope is the kind of Joker story Bryan is talking about:



    1. Bruce Timm's Batman is probably my second favorite, most definitely.

      Star Trek: Seven of Nine? Sign me up!

      And Bryant, I hear you on the costs of Trek. When it comes to cashing in on their fans, the only "brand" that does it better (actually, I should put that in quotes, "better") is Kiss.

      I don't begrudge them the costs/ profits, either, but sheesh. I don't even want to add up what I've spent on Trek over the years, or will in the future.

  4. I'm trying to adapt to this whole multi-platform thing. I'm actually trying to work up the courage to give up cable. But I love my NFL football and my daughter likes her Teen Nick, so it's a difficult decision. But I watch a lot more Netflix than I do cable television.

    But, there are hundreds of places on the Internet to see any show you want, just hours after broadcast, if you're willing to look.

    1. True; I've probably got a few of those bookmarked, too.

      Sports, news, and other forms of live broadcast are what will probably keep the networks afloat in the short term. But there's really no reason why Netflix (or some similar company) couldn't eventually venture into live streaming and form their own news networks, or sports channels, etc. I suspect that will happen eventually.