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Netflix tempts binge viewers with House of Cards pilot freebie

Outer Spacey: Doh! ... You have to install Silverlight

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Netflix is making the pilot episode of its made-for-IPTV series House of Cards free to anyone to watch, whether they’re one of the streaming service’s 33 million subscribers or not.

The entire 13-part series went live en masse on Netflix late last week. Rather than run the series episode by episode, week by week, Netflix reckons punters, who have grown accustomed to watching TV series DVD box-sets in one or two sittings, will want to watch its Macbeth-inspired drama of political skullduggery the same way.

The show, which stars Kevin Spacey, is a remake of the 1980s BBC TV series, expanded and carried across the Atlantic. The original was based on a novel by Tory politician Michael Dobbs - he now sits in the Upper House as Lord Dobbs of Wylye - adapted by Andrew Davies, the screenwriter best known for his late 1990s Pride and Prejudice script and for the rather good and fondly remembered A Very Peculiar Practice.

Dobbs and Davies get executive producer credits in the new version, which was directed by David Fincher, who also made Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network and - though this rarely gets mentioned in press release bios - Alien 3. Forrest Gump writer Eric Roth and Beau Willimon, who penned Ryan Gosling flick The Ides of March, adapted the series for the US.

Watching House of Cards part one requires the installation of “Netflix Player” aka Microsoft Silverlight. Once that’s in place, you can view the episode gratis. Get hooked and you’ll have to cough up at least £5.99 a month to see the rest - or avail yourself of Netflix’s free 30-day trial, though you’ll need to remember to go an cancel the subscription.

Netflix is clearly hoping viewers pulled in by House of Cards' big-name cast and crew show will want to stay - or that simple inertia ensures credit cards get billed rather than accounts cancelled.

The company is rumoured to have spent $100m on 26 episodes of House of Cards - with series two is on the way - as it seeks to become something more than a mere leaser of DVDs and supplier streamed films. That's a fraction of what it spends on streaming rights - just under $5 billion last year. The company now calls itself an “internet television network”, and has other new shows coming up, including the Arrested Development revival and a new Ricky Gervais vehicle, Derek.

It's a sign that IPTV is (almost) the equal to broadcast and cable TV, and may speed the shift of brands originally linked to one medium to others. Netflix wants punters to come to it not just for rentals but for original programming, to watch at a time that suits them best. Channels known for the shows they make will go the other way. HBO, a US cable channel that makes some hugely popular shows, is believed to negotiating to get its IPTV service, HBO Go, loaded onto Apple’s set-top box.

BBC Radio 4 is now offering online a visual version of its venerable Any Questions? show. As more programmes are released this way, the channel will become less a radio station and more an IPTV service. How soon before the internet version becomes the main release and the audio broadcast the optional extra? If Netflix’s giveaway pulls in the punters, it could be sooner than you think. ®

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