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Netflix Offering Free Access to First Episode of ‘House of Cards’

1 Feb, 2013 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Marketing effort seen as antidote to streaming freeloaders

Netflix Feb. 1 said it would make available through the month the first episode of second original series, “House of Cards,” to anyone with a broadband connection.

The episode is available at www.netflix.com/houseofcards. The series bows today in all Netflix territories.

The 13-episode political drama stars Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and Kate Mara, and is directed in part by David Fincher. A year ago, Netflix bowed its first original series, black comedy “Lilyhammer.”

Spacey plays the House majority whip, Francis Underwood, who, together with his wife Claire (Wright), stops at nothing to ensure their ascendancy to power. "Cards" is based on the 1990s BBC miniseries of the same name. 

When the series became available, Netflix beat out HBO, Showtime and AMC for the rights. Together with Media Rights Capital, it reportedly is spending more than $50 million co-producing the program.

“By offering the first episode for free … we are opening up this fascinating world for everyone to see and are confident they'll want more,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, said in a statement.

Unlike series on HBO, Showtime, Starz and AMC, which air episodes on a weekly basis, Netflix offers all episodes of a program from day one — much to the delight of binge viewers.

It’s a marketing ploy Netflix says separates its subscription video-on-demand service from premium TV. It also invites non-subscribers to sign up, watch all episodes, and then cancel before the first billing cycle. The free episode promotion is likely an effort to circumvent possible freeloaders.

Michael Pachter, analyst with Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles, said the free hour to hook people is smart, but will also encourage some people to join for a month, watch all episodes and promptly quit.

"Why give up the benefit of word-of-mouth that lasts the entire 13-week season?" Pachter said. "That's the nature of serialized drama. Instead they'll get a few days. [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings says, 'This is what our customers want,' and he's too arrogant to realize he's wrong."

Indeed, Hastings and Sarandos in separate forums, have welcomed the notion of binge viewing as a draw to Netflix. In the SVOD pioneer's recent fiscal call, Hastings likened conventional episodic programming to enabling viewers to read only a chapter of a book each week. Some analysts contend the weekly viewing can generate greater viewership through word-of mouth, while also allowing series creators to tweak the show midseason.

"It's a really risky proposition to completely remove that feedback loop, both from [studio] executives and the audience," Rich Tullo, with Albert Fried told CNN Money. "You see a lot of shows kind of change direction midseason based on viewership: '24,' 'Sopranos.' You take what works and provide people with more of that."


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