Kevin Spacey’s Advice for TV: Follow Netflix’s Example

“The relief for all of you is that I am not someone with an important job in broadcasting using this speech to audition for an even more important job in broadcasting,” Kevin Spacey, star of the Netflix-produced (NASDAQ:NFLX) House of Cards, said at the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

The actor was auditioning something, though: An idea that contained both a critique of and a recommendation for the television industry.

“If the MacTaggart were a political office that you actually had to run for, then the banner hanging over this lectern would be my campaign slogan and theme for today and it would read … ‘It’s the creatives, stupid,’” he said. That catchphrase sums up Spacey’s entire argument: The television industry needs to look to creative people, creative methods of delivery, and creative solutions in order to save television as an art form and as an industry.

Here is a breakdown of Spacey’s argument, drawn from a Telegraph transcript of his speech, which makes a pretty good case for Netflix’s decision to produce its own content, especially from the artistic standpoint.

1. The main object of the actor’s critique was the old industry standard, the pilot. He argued that it is outdated and damaging the industry.

“The obligation of a pilot — from the writing perspective — is that you have to spend about 45 minutes establishing all the characters, create arbitrary cliffhangers and generally prove that what you are setting out to do will work,” Spacey said. “Netflix was the only network that said, ‘We believe in you. We’ve run our data and it tells us that our audience would watch this series. We don’t need you to do a pilot.’”

Not only is the pilot model difficult to work with artistically, but, according to Spacey, it is not financially smart. By his calculations, 113 pilots were made last year, 35 of which were chosen to go to air and 13 of those renewed — “but there’s not many of those left.” For comparison, this year, 146 pilots were shot and 56 were turned into series. But for now, it is too soon to tell how many of those will be renewed.

“The cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300 million and $400 million each year,” he said. “Makes our House of Card’s deal for two seasons look really cost effective.” The Netflix show cost $100 million for two 13-episode seasons.

2. “It wasn’t out of arrogance that David Fincher, Beau Willimon and I were not interested in having to audition the idea [of House of Cards] — it was that we wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell,” Spacey said. “We were creating a sophisticated, multilayered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would take space to play out.”

That type of television production creates quality shows, which is what audiences really want, he argued. “The audience has spoken: They want stories,” Spacey said. “They’re dying for them. They are rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), make fan pages, silly GIFs and God knows what else about it, engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of.”

It also gives artistic freedom, and “the only way to protect talent and the quality of our work is for us to be innovative,” he said. In the end, Spacey believes that innovation and artistic freedom are what corporations, the studios, and the networks want, as well, because these attributes will enable them to make money and have the “highest possible audiences with the greatest impact.” Of course, corporations, studios, and networks also need to generate profits so they can continue to fund high-quality production.

“The challenge is can we create an environment where executives, those who live in data and numbers, are emboldened and empowered to support our mission; to have an environment with leadership that is willing to take risks, experiment, be prepared to fail by aiming higher rather than playing it safe,” he said.

3. Basically, Spacey is arguing that the television industry should abandon its long-established rules of finding and developing content, as Netflix did. “There has been this myth of ‘nobody knows anything,’ that making good programming is a crapshoot,” he said. “But frankly, that’s just BS. We do know how this works, and it’s always been about empowering artists. It’s always been about total abandon.

“Now if there is anything about the character I play on House of Cards – Francis Underwood — that suspect people might admire is that he, too, has embraced a sense of total abandon: abandonment to the rules,” the actor said. “He has no allegiances, to party, to titles, to forms, to names, to labels. He doesn’t care whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, ideology or conviction. What he sees is opportunity and the chance to move forward.”

Netflix saw an opportunity with House of Cards and moved forward. But the question is whether the established television industry will be able to do so as well. “One way that our industry might fail to adapt to the continually shifting sands is to keep a dogmatic differentiation in their minds between various media — separating film and TV and miniseries and Webisodes and however else you might want to label narrative formats,” he said, explaining that strict format rules can derail creative development.

4. In Spacey’s opinion, AMC’s (NASDAQ:AMCX) television show Breaking Bad cemented the “Netflix effect” as a reality. “What Breaking Bad’s rather late-in-life explosion in audience teaches us is that these shows need to be treated as assets to be nurtured, protected from the quick network trigger that can bail on a show before it has the chance to find its feet,” he said. “After all, The Sopranos audience took four seasons to reach its apex, Seinfeld took a nearly five-year route to big time ratings — its first four seasons didn’t even get it into the Nielson top 30.” Netflix gives television shows the time to be appreciated as art, he claims. It has taken every artistic medium decades to be recognized as a legitimate art form, he said — now, it’s television’s turn.

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Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS