Kevin Spacey officially opened the Guardian Edinburgh Television Festival in the Scottish capital this evening, becoming the first Hollywood star, rather than exec or broadcaster, ever to deliver the prestigious James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture. The lecture is designed to focus on the topics that are currently top of mind for the British TV biz. The House Of Cards star and exec producer riffed that the Netflix show was “one of the primary — if not the only reason — I was asked to speak today.” In an hourlong speech, he touched on the show’s innovations, the problems with pilots, the importance of storytelling and the industry’s responsibility to support new talent.
One of his more rousing comments was about making programming. “We know what works and the only thing we don’t know is why it’s so difficult to find executives with the fortitude, the wisdom and the balls to do it,” he offered. Speaking of the House Of Cards experience, he said, “Of course we went to all the major networks… and every single one was very interested in the idea… but every one of them wanted us to do a pilot first… 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. How many episodes do you want to do?’”
In another note on Emmy nominee House Of Cards, Spacey said: “Boy we got lucky in the creative department because since Netflix had never done an original program before, they didn’t even have an office to give us notes.” He also addressed technology and the changing ways people are consuming entertainment in today’s world. “Any differentiation between” film, TV and the Internet as platforms “will fall away” in the next 15 years, he predicted.
Calling The Sopranos, Rescue Me, Weeds, Homeland, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Damages, Sons Of Anarchy, Oz, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, Breaking Bad and House Of Cards “the most powerful and inescapable evidence that the King of television is the creatives,” he said the current challenge is “to keep the flame of this revolutionary programming alive by continuing to seek out new talent, nurture it, encourage it, challenge it, give it home and the kind of autonomy that the past and present of our three Golden Ages of television have proved we deserve.”
Spacey followed such former MacTaggart speakers as Rupert, James and Elisabeth Murdoch; Google chief Eric Schmidt and three former directors general of the BBC. His entire speech is here. Below are some excerpts:
“Like Francis [Underwood, Spacey’s House Of Cards character], I’ve come here today with no ideology – and I’m not viewing today’s event as a television event. It seems to me since audiences are no longer making those kinds of distinctions, why should we? So lets throw the labels out. Or as Francis might say, ‘at least let’s broaden the definitions – and if we have to call ourselves anything then aren’t we all just storytellers?'”
“House Of Cards – creatively – actually follows the model more often employed here in Great Britain. The television industry in this country has never really embraced the pilot season so looked to by the networks in the United States as a worthwhile effort. Now, of course we went to all the major networks with House Of Cards and every single one was very interested in the idea… but every one of them wanted us to do a pilot first.”
“It wasn’t out of arrogance that David Fincher, Beau Willimon and I were not interested in having to audition the idea, it was that we wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would take space to play out.”
“The obligation of a pilot – from the writing perspective – is that you have to spend about 45 minutes establishing all the characters, create arbitrary cliff-hangers and generally prove that what you are setting out to do will work. 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. How many episodes do you want to do?” And we said, “Two seasons?” By comparison, last year 113 pilots were made. 35 of those were chosen to go to air. 13 of those were renewed, but there’s not many of those left. This year 146 pilots were shot. 56 have gone to series and we don’t know the outcome of those yet. The cost of these pilots was somewhere between 300/400 million dollars each year. Makes our House Of Card’s deal for 2 seasons look really cost effective.”
“Clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season of House Of Cards at once has proved one thing – the audience wants the control. They want freedom. If they want to binge – as they’ve been doing on House Of Cards – then we should let them binge… And through this new form of distribution, I think we have demonstrated that we have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: Give people what they want – when they want it – in the form they want it in – at a reasonable price – and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it; well, some will still steal it, but I believe this new model can take a bite out of piracy.”
“And the audience has spoken: they want stories. 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, make fan pages, silly Jifs and god knows what else about it, engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of. All we have to do is give it to them. The prize fruit is right there. Shinier and juicier than it has ever been before. So it will be all the more shame on each and every one of us if we don’t reach out and seize it.”
“If someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span? When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera. We can make NO ASSUMPTIONS about what viewers want or how they want to experience things. We must observe, adapt, and TRY NEW THINGS to discover appetites we didn’t know were there.”