Streaming shows online is already a popular way to watch TV and now, with the success of House of Cards, will there be more web-only commissions too? It's a quiet revolution…
Speaking at a Bafta-organised forum a fortnight ago, director Peter Kosminsky said he'd had an epiphany. Like a great many TV fans right now, he'd stayed up late watching back-to-back episodes of House of Cards, the new political drama starring Kevin Spacey that is currently enjoying a Killing-esque vogue. "I realised," said Kosminsky, "that I was watching the end of an era."
The end of an era because House of Cards was commissioned, produced and funded to the tune of $100m (£64m) by online subscription-service Netflix, which started life as a DVD rental outfit. All of the drama's 13 episodes were available to view as soon as it was launched at the beginning of the month – but only if streamed directly from Netflix's website. The established TV channels had been bypassed, very effectively, and Kosminsky concluded: "If I was a traditional broadcaster watching… I would have been shitting it."
Will original programming that is streamed to viewers online, either free or for a subscription payment, become the norm? Will more TV shows start to premiere online, in series-length caches, allowing viewers to choose when and how they watch them? Netflix hopes so. As well as House of Cards, the US-based firm has splashed a reported £190m content budget on a revival of the cult comedy Arrested Development, plus four more shows. The success of House of Cards (actually a remake of a 20-year-old British drama starring Ian Richardson) must surely prompt rivals to try something similar.
The challenge, in the future, will be consistently to lure enough people away from their flatscreens and plasmas to watch programmes on a computer screen; or else to make the content more obviously accessible on everyday TVs. There are various cunning ways to stream the video content offered by Netflix and others directly on to your TV – via a gaming console, for instance, or through built-in apps that vary among manufacturers. But it can be hopelessly complicated, and inconsistent, and I have a feeling a lot of people have simply been watching House of Cards on sofa-perched laptops. That's how I did it – powering through 13 episodes while squinting at an 11in screen. It was such a ridiculously compelling show, I quickly stopped noticing the neck ache, the fatigue-induced eyebrow tremors…
What else is out there to stream right now? Netflix, its British-based rival Lovefilm Instant and Apple's iTunes Store all offer back catalogues of certain TV shows that can be streamed via subscription (Netflix, Lovefilm) or per-episode payment (iTunes). Meanwhile, domestic broadcasters, spurred by the success of the BBC's streaming service iPlayer, have made available chunky catalogues of old programmes that can be accessed mostly for free. Here, Observer writers pick the shows, new and old but all currently available to stream in the UK, that deserve your attention.