Last week proved that new-age studios like Netflix are not immune from old-school Hollywood problems. The SVOD giant fired star Kevin Spacey from House of Cards after a raft of accusations came forward accusing the actor and producer of sexual assault. Earlier in the week, Netflix had announced that the show would not be renewed after the upcoming sixth season, but this was insufficient to satisfy the critics, resulting in the decision to completely cut ties with Spacey by Friday.
What does the sudden fall of this real-world house of cards tell us about the future of TV?
1. Data Isn’t Everything
Netflix loves its data, which is its true source of competitive advantage over legacy companies. Back in 2013, the MIT Technology Review posted a fascinating discussion about how Netflix had used data to create House of Cards in the first place. Basically, by combing through then-current viewing data on its 33 million subscribers, the data scientists figured out that people (used to) love Kevin Spacey and they (used to) love political dramas. Put the two together and you’ve got a guaranteed hit.
The problem with that, of course, is that Kevin Spacey is a human being, not an animated character like Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson. And unlike such characters, and despite what the data might imply, feelings about human beings can change, both for better and (in this case) for worse. In 1989, OJ Simpson was a beloved celebrity, actor (The Naked Gun!), and star sideline reporter for NFL games on NBC. Until October 2017, Harvey Weinstein was an academy-award winning producer who headed his own mini-major movie studio.
This past week, Kevin Spacey joined this rogue’s gallery and suddenly no one wants to watch him on TV anymore. There is no algorithm on earth that could have predicted that turn of events, which pretty much wiped out the value of the House of Cards (including the prior seasons featuring Mr. Spacey).
2. Edginess Is Inherently Unstable
The new world of on-demand content has greatly favored the development of edgy content. Mainstream is out. Boundary pushing is in.
So we get shows like The Walking Dead (zombie apocalypse) and Breaking Bad (drugs), to say nothing of Outlander (Time travel + violence + sex), Man in the High Castle (Nazis!), Narcos (more drugs), The Handmaid’s Tale (Dystopia + sex), Westworld (Androids + violence + sex), Game of Thrones (Dragons + violence + sex), and countless more. TV is pretty much drowning in edgy at this point, which raises several challenges.
First, the endless search for provocative themes can cross visible or invisible cultural red lines. The reaction to HBO’s planned new series Confederate, in which the South won its independence and created a country where slavery is still legal, shows how quickly ‘edgy’ can spiral out of control.
Second, ‘edgy’ creative types tend to not also be saints. Google learned this lesson the hard way earlier this year, when YouTube star PewDiePie turned out to be an anti-Semite wolf in slacker’s clothing. YouTube loved the guy (and especially his 53 million subscribers) right up until it didn’t. The same could be said for Fox and Bill O’Reilly. Kevin Spacey obviously had a little more buttoned-down public persona, but in terms of his behavior off-camera he clearly fits right in.
Edgy TV is starting to look like how we used to think about rock-and-roll and its stars. Yes, people like it and the potential for real creative brilliance is there. Unfortunately, such brilliance is often followed by someone or something running straight off a cliff.
The transition from legacy TV to broadband video viewing has put a huge premium on two things: (1) data and (2) edgy content. The shockingly swift fall of House of Cards shows that this recipe is far from infallible.
Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.
Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.