In his MacTaggart speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Spacey, who stars in House of Cards as double dealing politician Francis Underwood, claimed that of the 156 US pilots produced for the 2012-13 season, few would survive despite the total cost between US$300-400 million.
He noted that of the 113 pilots made for the previous season, 35 went to air, with less than a third of these renewed. “It makes our House of Cards deal for two seasons look really cost effective.”
The process of the producing a pilot, which he defined as spending “about 45 minutes establishing all the characters” and creating “arbitrary cliff-hangers”, was another factor behind House of Cards going to streaming service Netflix, he said.
“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 started to tell a story that would take a long time to tell,” he 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.'”
The challenge for television producers and channel executives was now creating “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”.
Of Netflix’s decision to bundle the House of Cards episodes, Spacey said: “Give people what they want – when they want it – in the form they want, at a reasonable price and they’ll more likely pay for it rather than steal it. Well, some will steal it but I believe this new model can take a bite out of piracy.”
Earlier this week, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, who is also here in Edinburgh, conceded heat generated from pirated downloads of the meth drama had been among the reasons AMC persevered with it despite “pathetic” ratings in its early seasons.