Netflix will stream the third season of its original series “House of Cards” starting Friday. The new season will follow Francis Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) machinations as the new president.
It also will mark two years since that watershed moment of the series’ first-season debut. So much other wide and varied streaming-service content has emerged in that period that it feels like it has been a decade, instead of a few years, since we first saw then-Congressman Underwood look directly into the camera and sneer.
The 2013 debut of “Cards,” the 13 episodes of which were made available all at once, popularized the “binge-viewing” concept and marked the entry of Netflix into the HBO realm of big stars (Spacey, Robin Wright) and directors (David Fincher) and high production values.
“Netflix emerged at that moment as another rival to network television and cable channels,” said Michael Z. Newman, associate professor of media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and co-author of the 2011 book “Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status.”
Not long after, so did streaming networks Amazon and Hulu, which, like Netflix, tailor original content to suit a shifting TV audience that watches content when it wants and on whatever device it chooses. Chunks of that same audience have eschewed cable altogether for a la carte online subscription services.
Amazon, which established its Amazon Studios production arm in 2010, began producing series in earnest in 2014, including the critical darling “Transparent.” Hulu, once known as the place to catch week-old TV episodes and Criterion Collection films, in 2014 released the comedies “Deadbeat,” about a pothead spiritual medium, and “The Hotwives of Orlando,” a spoof of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” franchise. Both shows received second-season orders.
The content explosion reached well past the big three streaming networks. Steven Spielberg is producing a series, based on the “Halo” video game, for the Xbox Live network.
All that new streaming content contributed to the number of scripted series reaching an all-time high of 180 shows in 2014, according to a recent Vulture.com story. That’s about twice as many as there were in 2010.
“The (network and cable) players who are already in the game are coming up with more and more content, and now there are so many streaming and online outlets that people will joke about it – ‘Next, Uber’s going to have a show,’” Huffington Post television critic Maureen Ryan said.
The concept is not all that farfetched, considering the hotel chain Marriott now has its own content studio.
Netflix, meanwhile, never slowed down after “Cards.” Though Netflix does not release ratings numbers, it acknowledged adding 2 million U.S. viewers in first-quarter 2013, when “Cards” debuted, and 1.3 million in the third quarter of that year, when it introduced a second hit show, “Orange Is the New Black.” (Deepening the ongoing mystery surrounding Netflix ratings, Netflix called “Orange” its “most-watched” show that year).
Together, “Cards’” and “Orange’s” second seasons helped Netflix reach 50 million worldwide subscribers in 2014. The streaming network now is entering the theatrical film business, producing a sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” set for August, with the Weinstein Co.
“Orange,” which follows a group of women in prison, inspired great passion among viewers – and maintained its glowing critical reviews in its sophomore season. “Cards,” by contrast, largely was seen as having gone off the rails in Season 2.
“Orange” was the reigning edgy show among all TV content delivery platforms until “Transparent,” in which Jeffrey Tambor plays a transgender person who comes out to an ex-wife and three grown children, stole its thunder when it debuted in September. In January, Tambor and “Transparent” won Golden Globe awards.
“Orange” and “Transparent” showed that streaming networks are pushing boundaries of what Ryan calls the “prestige markers” attached to scripted series. Such attributes started with “The Sopranos,” continued with successful shows such as “Mad Men” and then became a common thread among new, would-be awards-caliber shows.
“For years, prestige markers tend to be a male protagonist with questionable morality, and a wife and or family that is to some degree an encumbrance he wants to escape,” Ryan said. The shows also often entailed “violence, alcohol, infidelity. … You would see many derivative shots at that kind of thing. … The Game Show Network is maybe the only one that didn’t try.”
“Cards” held to that standard. But then “Orange” demonstrated that, “Look, there are all these other things that you can do,” Ryan said. “‘Transparent’ took that to the next level. In terms of prestige markers, ‘Transparent’ just kind of ignored most of them.”
With so much competition now, streaming networks are better off staying close to the edge in their content, Ryan maintains. She argued as much in a recent column about the comparatively traditional Amazon detective series “Bosch,” which debuted Feb. 13.
“I think what is coming in the media landscape and what is already here, to a certain extent, is people curating their own experience of media to an intense degree,” Ryan said. “The way to make people want your product is to have something in your product mix that is unique.”
Below is a list of key developments among streaming networks since “Cards” debuted in February 2013:
1. “Orange Is the New Black.” Created by former “Weeds” boss Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time in a women’s prison, this series debuted in July 2013 and quickly became the buzziest show of the summer. Critics and fans applauded the diverse cast, female-centric stories and sometimes raw storytelling approach. Previously little-known actress Uzo Aduba emerged as a favorite for her misunderstood prisoner character Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Aduba won a 2014 Emmy as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series.
2. “Transparent,” a half-hour Amazon dramedy, premiered all 10 episodes at once for subscribers to its Amazon Prime service in September. Binge-ing ensued. The show began with a progressive premise, like “Orange,” but instead of a little-known cast, stars a Spacey-level actor in Tambor. He is highly sympathetic as a devoted transgender parent to a trio of selfish grown children.
3. Netflix and Amazon enter the movie business. Netflix is making four movies with Adam Sandler and co-producing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with the Weinstein Co. “Dragon” is slated to hit Netflix and Imax screens on the same day in 2015. Amazon Studios announced earlier this year that it will make indie movies for $5 million to $25 million, and premiere them on Amazon Prime four to eight weeks after a theatrical debut.
4. HBO Go going cable-free. Amid fierce competition from streaming services, HBO announced last year that it will offer its HBO Go online service sans accompanying cable subscription, sometime in 2015. “Media companies have to make the economic calculation about the value of the cable bundle in relation to the audience that isn’t going to buy that bundle,” said Newman, the media studies professor. “Because we know lots of people are using someone else’s HBO sign-on.”
5. Woody Allen inks deal with Amazon. Because nothing says technology like Woody Allen, who makes movies about 1920s mystics. In January, Amazon Studios announced it had signed Allen to write and direct a series, as yet untitled and its content unknown. Allen offered this Allen-esque quote in the press release announcing the series: “I don’t know how I got into this. I have no ideas, and I’m not sure where to begin.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.