Netflix data didn't feed House of Cards' success, 'the bliss of ignorance' did

The opening scene of the Netflix original House of Cards, in which a dog is killed by the lead character, certainly isn't for the faint of heart. So much so that some people made the decision to stop watching right as Frank Underwood finished saying he has "no patience for useless things," and ended the canine's life shortly after it had been run over and left to suffer on the street. And if you've watched the show, then you know Frank wouldn't be Frank without doing such unsettling things. Yes, it was a powerful and very risky way to kick off a new style of series, but it is one that set the tone for the House of Cards we've now become familiar with, regardless of how appalling it may have been. For Beau Willimon, the man responsible for turning an old UK TV series into a show based on American politics, if you can't handle that scene, then you're not meant to watch the show.

This topic was brought up at the Tribeca Film Festival, during a Future of Film panel titled Stories by Numbers, which focused on how viewer data could affect narrative in film and journalism. Was Willimon afraid of losing viewers by killing a dog within the first few minutes of his show? The short and simple answer: no. Chances are most screenplay writers would tell you the same thing, and that's because a scene like that can instantly tell you a lot about a character. "If people don't watch, that doesn't mean I won't kill dogs in the future. Knowing feedback can be a liability," said Willimon. However, that's not to say he doesn't recognize the importance of how the audience feels about his work: "If people enjoy it, that's a happy by-product."

A scene like that can instantly tell you a lot about a character.

The dog-killing scene, being essential to introducing an ambitious and ruthless main character, is an example of when negative viewer reception could have led the writer to shift the way the story was approached. Which wasn't what happened here. Because, regardless of the data Netflix might be able to provide about its viewers, Willimon said working on House of Cards is all instinct for him since he doesn't have access to any of the stats, including the total number of people who watch the show. And even if he was able to view this data, it likely wouldn't have affected his writing -- Willimon said it is best to not focus "too much on causality."

It is fiction, after all.

In a more private conversation, Willimon told me that he's completely aware of the great response to House of Cards. "Netflix is happy. In terms of it being a hit, that's a designation that in years past [was] still related to ratings. The good thing nowadays is that there are a lot of ways to measure a show's success." Not surprisingly, one of these methods of measurement is social media, which he believes is great since it allows viewers to share their enthusiasm for the show. "That sense of community is a new phenomenon that used to be relegated to friends and a work environment," he added.

Such enthusiasm from House of Cards fans has undoubtedly turned the show into Netflix's hottest property.

Such enthusiasm from House of Cards fans has undoubtedly turned the show into Netflix's hottest property. But before the Underwoods could invade our living rooms, the video-streaming giant had to outbid networks such as HBO to acquire the rights to the TV drama. And Willimon, along with Director David Fincher and Executive Producer Kevin Spacey, couldn't be happier that this was the case. "On non-Netflix shows, you're only as good as your last week's ratings. Having a 26-episode deal helped the writing. We had the bliss of ignorance," said Willimon during the Tribeca Film Festival panel.

That guaranteed number of episodes, which were split into two seasons, was a huge factor in the excitement to go the binge-watching route, as was the creative freedom promised by Netflix, Willimon told me. "Finally, we were excited at the prospect that no one had done it before. It allowed [us] to ask a lot of questions: How do we release it? How do we market it? It was nervousness. Whenever you do something new, there's a risk. We were all drawn to that. None of us had really worked on television; it was a certain thing that complemented the partnership. But at the time, there was an excitement for the unknown."

"My only responsibility is to tell a great story."

As with any type of success, there comes an added pressure. In the case of Netflix, people may be getting a subscription just to watch House of Cards. Willimon said that's great, if that's the case, but added that they're also getting a good bang for their buck by having access to other content. "My only responsibility is to tell a great story. I don't think about that on the set or as I'm writing." Naturally, that same success has led the likes of HBO and Showtime, which have been producing TV shows for years, to now view Netflix as a real threat. He doesn't see this as a problem, however: "I love HBO, too. Really, what's happening is that the land is becoming more diverse. It's vital and fascinating."

And that, in the end, is fantastic news for you, the almighty viewer. "I think it's an exciting time to work on TV, because it feels like anything is possible," Willimon stated.

[Image credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images]