'House of Cards' Creator Says Thomas Jefferson Would Love Netflix (Guest Column)

Beau Willimon House of Cards Guest Column - H 2013
Netflix; Getty Images

Beau Willimon House of Cards Guest Column - H 2013

In a guest column for THR, Beau Willimon revels in the "viewer empowerment" of writing scripts for Internet TV.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In his essay "The Private Jefferson," Christopher Hitchens described our 3rd prez as a "revolutionary who believed above all in order." And yet, as CH notes, TJ had an appreciation for chaos: "Indeed, he rather commended the Whiskey Rebellion as something desirable for its own sake -- 'like a storm in the atmosphere.' "

Writing 13 hours of a stream-show (flow-show? stream-a-vision? intervision aka I.V.?) requires the same mind-set. It's folding 600+ pages into paper planes and throwing them into "a storm in the atmosphere." But then you need to land those 600+ planes with the precision of an air-traffic controller.

For #HouseofCards, we didn't cater the narrative for binge-watching, mostly cuz we didn't decide until midproduction to release all 13 chapters at once. That said, we didn't set out to make a traditional "TV show," either, mostly cuz many of us involved had never made a TV show b4.

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@netflix is the real revolutionary. I cite deux Declarations of Insolence: 1) They guaranteed us two seasons upfront & 2) They bestowed us w/ extraordinary creative freedom. The former did affect storytelling. Knowing our sandbox was filled w/26 hours allowed us to focus on long arcs rather than cliffhangers. Ditto the latter; it encouraged risk-taking rather than branding. Netflix's rebel-without-a-pause attitude surely informed the choice to release 13 eps with a single click. The storm in the atmosphere? Viewer Empowerment.

J-son saw revolution in cyclical terms. He believed: "Every constitution, then, and every law naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right." 19 yrs makes sense -- it's a generation. Each generation requires its own rules. That 20-yr theory applies to TV. In the '50s, the tube replaced radio as the primary source of home entertainment. In the '70s, cable expanded the scope of TV beyond the broadcast networks. In the '90s, HBO brought original paid-cable programming into the mainstream. And now, in the 20-teens, Netflix has dissolved whatever barriers separated TV from the Internet. In another 20 yrs, the wheel will revolve again in some unimaginable way.

Netflix democratizes the viewing experience. It exploits a trend (DVR, on-demand, streaming), which strips execs of the power to determine when & how a show will be viewed, and it places that power in the hands of consumers. That's chaos for networks, but out of that storm emerges a new order, one governed by viewers instead of content-providers. TJ wrote a slogan fit for Netflix: "The least governed are the best governed."

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Were Tommy J alive today, I think he'd be impressed with Netflix. And I'd bet the Federal Reserve that he would pay $7.99/mo. to watch, dunno, Ken Burns' documentary Thomas Jefferson (available this instant). <3

Beau Willimon is the creator of Netflix's House of Cards.