House of Cards producer: Netflix 'had to go into new territory' with original content to succeed

AMSTERDAM -- Netflix may currently sit atop the online video streaming market, but that wasn't always so. One of the elements that put it there was its decision to invest in high-quality original content, House of Cards producer Lord Michael Dobbs told an audience at IBC.

Despite being one of the first companies to enable streaming of licensed movies to subscribers, Netflix just a few years ago relied on its DVD business for revenues, with now-defunct Blockbuster as its closest competitor. "Netflix was dead until they decided to take the huge risk to get in to the area of streaming that they're in now," Dobbs said.

Adding original content, particularly high quality, Hollywood-produced content, to the mix gave it an edge over the competition.

"In order to survive, the viewer demands quality, and the viewer is now in control. And Netflix was one of the leaders," he said.

Dobbs, who authored the book and was a producer on the BBC's original version of House of Cards, wasn't initially enthusiastic about bringing the series over to the U.S. "I had a number of Americans come to me [asking] to adapt it," he said. But he refused -- perhaps partly because of his negative experience with the BBC when it decided to take the series in a new direction in its third season. "There's a time and place for everything. It hadn't worked for all these years. Then I got a call," Dobbs said, putting on a twangy American accent: "'Hi Mike!' ... I said, give me a call when you're serious."

Six months later Netflix called back and told Dobbs they had brought aboard David Fincher and Kevin Spacey for the series. "To bring their reputation to something like this, you know it was something special," Dobbs said in explaining why he agreed to be a producer on the U.S. version of the series.

"I've dealt with Hollywood before. You sign the document and you get chewed up and spit out," Dobbs said. But Netflix was different, giving him oversight on the series. "This has been the happiest experience of my life."

Even though House of Cards' plot has gone off in new directions with season four in production, Dobbs isn't unhappy. "The first season of the American version of House of Cards pays homage to the original … but we knew if it was going to succeed it had to go into new territory."

Calling Netflix's strategy to focus more on original content and less on licensing existing content one that is "new and desperately exciting," Dobbs stressed the importance of quality writing and production as something the viewer wants.

"I'm a huge optimist because we have broken the old cabal where television was ruled by the schedulers who told you what you were going to watch and when you were going to watch it," he said. "And fortunately the viewer wants quality. That's why [SVOD] is getting better and better."

Full coverage: IBC Live 2015

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