In 2011, the average TV pilot costs $6 million to produce. Before streaming, each script and idea is presented to the gatekeepers at the big TV Networks. Most don’t get past the first review and join the rejection pile.
The Network sings up the other 1 in 100 shows. They put the $6 million on the table to make the pilot. Once produced, the pilot is screened to a focus group for feedback. If the Network liked the pilot and audience feedback, they have the option to commission a 6 or 12 part series. More commonly, they reject the show after viewing the pilot.
A flop was an expensive mistake. The Network expects that the number of rejected pilots will significantly outweigh the successful ones. Although it costs $6 million to commission a pilot, that’s ok because it’s normal to spend money on a failed pilot.
A TV series on the other hand presents risk. The Network can’t afford a series of flops. There’s a lot more money involved in a 6 or 12 episode series. More importantly, the Network puts its reputation on the line, and therefore so do the people making the decision to commission the series. If the show bombs, it represents a very public failure and advertisers won’t tolerate a succession of failures. They want their products aired amongst hits.
House of Cards
House of Cards was like any other show. The production studio pitched the script and story to the Networks. The writer, director and lead actor were already signed up, each popular and successful in their own respective fields.
The script was interesting and the Networks liked what they saw. But, it didn’t tick all the boxes. It didn’t match their ‘success criteria.’ It had been several years since a political series had done well, commercially speaking. Audiences didn’t seem to be interested in the genre anymore. Plus, House of Cards was a slow burner. The characters had depth and the idea was that a viewer would get to know them gradually. The Networks all declined the series.
At this point, in 2011, Netflix didn’t make original material. The model was that the production studio approached Networks with a show. The Network decided whether to buy the pilot, and then the series. Once the series was produced, Netflix would buy the streaming rights.
Based on their review criteria, which had been honed and tested for decades, the Networks decided that House of Cards didn’t represent a viable production. They knew better than anyone what their audience wanted, and it wasn’t this.
When the script and concept got to Netflix, they viewed it through a different lens. Of their 33 million subscribers, they knew that a substantial number liked films with Kevin Spacey. The same was true for films directed by David Fincher or written by Beau Willimon. If you created a venn diagram, there was a massive overlap between all three. The Netflix viewing data, drawn from millions of subscribers, proved this.
From the Netflix perspective, with the way they looked at the World, this was a slam dunk. They signed House of Cards, but not for the pilot. They immediately commissioned two series.
Success reinforces the comfort of familiarity
The Networks were stunned. They were eagerly anticipating the car crash. Here was a show that nobody wanted. The new kids in town were not only taking a punt on a series that much wiser professionals had declined, they were going against all sensible protocol and signing up to 26 episodes before they or anyone else had watched an episode.
The result was one of the most popular TV shows in decades.
At micro and macro level, games change all the time. What seems unthinkable today feels obvious tomorrow. The TV Networks built proven systems to produce shows. This system had been working for decades. Those within the industry had achieved success working within these frameworks. Their mentors had created the systems. Nobody understood TV better than they did.
Our environment evolves constantly. Methods you use today to perform any task will eventually be succeeded by an alternative method. That’s because technology, culture and society all change. When you’re immersed in a way of doing things, it’s difficult to spot the change and identify that the way you’ve been doing things is no longer the best available. It’s even harder when you’ve been successful with your method up to now. The success doesn’t suddenly drop off a cliff. It declines. The decline is steady enough that you don’t notice it.
It’s easier for an outsider to spot when traditions are broken. It pays to frequently review your processes. Are they as successful today as you think they are? Maybe, what you did yesterday with one set of circumstances isn’t the best way forward today with another set. It’s easy and natural to follow a pattern, which means it’s really important to stop and consider whether this pattern of work is the best available today with what may be a different set of circumstances.
Netflix recognised that new data was available today which hadn’t been available yesterday. Yesterday, when live data on audience preferences wasn’t available, the pilot and focus group was the best way to make decisions on the next show. Today, with the evolution of technology, Netflix could successfully skip the pilot and commission two series, which brought many other advantages to Netflix.
If you want to read about the House of Cards story, I recommend Streaming, Sharing, Stealing by Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang.