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Netflix’s ‘House of Cards’ Binge Strategy

Netflix
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Netflix

On Friday, Netflix launches all 13 episodes of "House of Cards," its original series in which it's investing $100 million. And unlike its rivals HBO (TWX) and Showtime (CBS), which release premium episodes one a week over the course of months, Netflix is dumping all 13 at once, so its subscribers can watch them in big chunks—what's unflatteringly called "binge viewing."

This is a big deal: it's Netflix's first big debut in the premium original content space, and it puts the streaming video player into direct competition with HBO, Showtime and Starz, for both content and viewers. It's a total transformation of the way Netflix conceives of its relationship with content. And the subscription service hopes it'll help lure and keep subscribers.

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The big question: will premium original content lure in new subscribers? Or will the fact that you can watch the entire 'season' over the course of the weekend mean that people will be inclined to pay for just one month, and then dump the service?

Morgan Stanley's Scott Devitt, with an 'Overweight' rating on the stock, projects that the Bull case for Netflix is that it "is able to reduce churn and drive incremental sub growth by delivering strong original programming." The risk is if "original programming is executed poorly and there is no tangible, sustained lift in subs."

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BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield says that the shows "look and feel like an HBO or Showtime series," and that "virtually every traditional media outlet is rooting for the releasing strategy's complete and utter failure." But Greenfield points out that Netflix isn't the only player in the premium content game, pointing to "the progress Amazon has made in a relatively short amount of time." Though he says they're not denting Netflix's subscriber growth, Amazon may co-exist and thrive by taking a similar strategy, Greenfield says.

Needham's analyst Charlie Wolf, who is dropping coverage, warned that because Netflix has already signed up over half of U.S. households, it'll be "increasingly difficult" for original programming to accelerate its subscriber growth rate."

Though subscribers will have the option of devouring the series all at once, there won't be any immediate indication of whether it's a hit. Netflix doesn't plan to release any viewer numbers, but last week Reed Hastings told CNBC in an exclusive interview about how Netflix will internally measure its success. First, the company will track how many of its subscribers watch, and among non-members, Netflix will measure awareness, whether people have heard about the show, if they know it's on Netflix, and if they're excited about it."

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But no matter what, Hastings says he hopes the show to impact Netflix's customer base: "for some people, it'll be the tipping function that gets them to join." Hastings told CNBC last week, "For other people, it sets a base. And then, when they hear about some other show, then they're finally going to join Netflix."

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.