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Sunday 23 November 2014

The week telly changed forever - thanks to Netflix

REMEMBER that golden age of the internet when people used to forward joke emails to each other? Usually, this involved an amusing animated gif, or a cat dressed as a pirate -- but in the land-before-broadband, PCs would commit hari-kari trying to open them. A handful of megabytes had us reaching for the reboot button and cursing the 10-second video of someone falling off a bike.

Nostalgically, we chuckle at these memories, just as our children think our ancient cassette tapes are hilarious relics. They have never lived in a world where it wasn't possible to watch whole films on a laptop, or live TV on a smartphone. Technology times, as Bob Dylan nearly said, are a-changin'.

This week, Netflix, the online streaming service, will take things further. The site currently offers film and TV series to subscribers who have unlimited access, once they pay a monthly fee. All of the available content has previously appeared on mainstream or cable channels -- until now. On Friday, Netflix's first self-produced series, House of Cards, will air.

"We think of ourselves as an internet TV channel who license programmes from others, but we really want to move into another category -- that of producer," says Joris Evers, director of corporate communications at Netflix. Originally shown as a four-part BBC series in 1990, the House of Cards reboot is miles -- geographically, stylistically -- away from the corridors of Westminster and the House of Commons. Why did they opt for this show as their first project?

"Anyone watching television can see that there is a huge appetite for political drama, from The West Wing onwards. The BBC version is already on Netflix and people love it, but this is not a remake -- it's more of a reinvention to suit the times we live in."



Classic

The US version is set in Washington with Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. His no-nonsense wife Claire is played by Robin Wright, with Kate Mara (sister of Rooney) in the role of the ambitious, young journalist.

Spacey's production company produced the show and the actor got his friend David Fincher on board to direct the first two episodes. Spacey's character is brilliantly cast and already a classic TV villain in the making. The actor also recognises that most of us are experiencing television in a different way. "We're the new TV series that isn't on TV," he told me recently.

"I think it's a first that the entire season of a show will be available to anyone who wants to watch all 13 in a row. It certainly seems to be the way people are consuming their entertainment now," said the actor.

'Choice' is a word that comes up repeatedly if you talk to anyone about viewing platforms. Parents of small children -- that bleary eyed bunch who rarely see any live television beyond 11pm -- are glad of the watch-back facilities offered by the RTE and TV3 players.

The proof, say RTE, is in figures that say one million people have used the facility to date, with 465,000 accessing it weekly -- which has more than doubled in the last year. "The catch-up services are about giving people a choice. Live TV viewing dominates, and is up year on year, as viewers still want to watch TV within a schedule.

With the RTE Player, we see that certain types of programmes -- comedy, drama and entertainment -- are being watched, and by specific groups. According to Aisling McCabe, director of strategic platforms in RTE Digital, a hefty 43pc of 16-34 year-olds have used the player.

Stephen Grant, director of Online at TV3 backs up this trend. "In terms of numbers, 3player gets around 350,000 people using it a month with around one million video plays. Usage is primarily from younger age groups with our research showing 70pc under 45. 3player is also more popular with females than males due to programmes such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale and X Factor," he says.

Shows that air live on domestic TV are not in huge danger from streaming sites just yet. Most households don't yet own a smart TV, but there are particular programme areas -- sports, current affairs, and soaps -- that viewers expect to see on television.

Where traditional channels have an advantage, is with event-based programming, like talent result shows or football matches. The communal experience of huge audiences all watching at the same time, overlaps with social media.

A poke around Twitter on a Friday night after 9.30pm reveals a huge volume of tweets, from barbed comments to pithy reviews of The Late Late Show. Broadcasters are well aware that this 'second screen' model of experiencing television (watching on a TV/laptop, while tweeting via a phone) is here to stay. Linear broadcasts, or 'agenda-based television', according to Joris Evers of Netflix, have dedicated audiences, but are embedded within a rigid schedule.

"Traditional TV stations are already changing because they know they have to. They are also required to provide things like news, and weather, that streaming broadcasters don't have to worry about," says Evers.

Most shows that make the leap to an internet platform have already had some sort of grounding in film or television. Mainstream TV is where audiences first discover programmes, which then migrate to the web. Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee aired on Crackle, another online streaming service.



Brand

Over a decade's worth of Seinfeld, and the brand that is the actor himself, undoubtedly helped to get the show made. Sci-fi series H+, runs weekly on YouTube, but the involvement of Bryan Singer, (director of The Usual Suspects and the X-Men films) secured production funding for the project. Crucially, Netflix's second production -- due to air later this year -- is Arrested Development, a show that ended in 2006, but maintains a huge cult following. All of this points to pattern changes not just in when people are watching, but how. Gone, also, are the days of a family huddled around a central television set, thanks to the multi-room service offered by some TV providers.

"Our research tells us that 70pc watch the RTE Player on their own and not sitting beside someone. Almost 39pc of people use it in bedrooms and 20pc of all Player traffic comes via apps, iPads and iPhones. People watch comedy on their iPhone, but use their desktop for drama," says Aisling McCabe.

RTE have also dabbled in producing standalone online TV, with the commendable Storyland series. One of Storyland's biggest successes is Hardy Bucks, which has been made into a feature film due for release next month. Love/Hate, one of RTE's biggest success stories has been sold to Hulu, another US-based streaming service and Netflix's closest rival.

Over at TV3, Grant says "We are looking at developing content specifically for 3player, but at present the potential return does not justify the cost."

Technology -- from editing software to TV cameras -- is advancing and becoming increasingly democratic. Anyone can buy a broadcast-quality camera, edit on a laptop with software and upload to the web.

Given the very high production values of House of Cards, a lot of money (a rumoured $100m budget) has been funnelled into the 26 episodes.



Novelty

Netflix partly funded the show via subscribers (they have 30 million worldwide, with nine million postal subscribers, who sign up for DVDs), and outbid US cable giants HBO and AMC for the rights.

This new model of bingeing on a show may seem like a novelty, but it has been steadily increasing. Word-of-mouth boxset recommendations pull in new audiences to The Wire and The Sopranos. Torrent downloads mean that those waiting for more shows like Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing get their Scandi-drama fix.

RTE has plans to increase its web-only content but is tight-lipped. "Storyland was very successful," says Aisling McCabe, "but we will experiment and tweak the format." If they get anywhere near the quality of House of Cards, the landscape of online television will be a far more interesting place.

Season 1 of House of Cards is available from Friday on Netflix.

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