Kevin Spacey: TV audiences 'want to binge'

Kevin Spacey: "The film industry didn't believe that television could ever become its biggest competitor"

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Audiences are demanding "complex, smart stories" as they become accustomed to "bingeing" on box sets, Kevin Spacey has told TV executives in Edinburgh.

Spacey, star of the acclaimed drama, House of Cards, said: "The audience wants control. They want freedom."

Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival, he urged the industry to nurture talent and give audiences "what they want, when they want it".

"If they want to binge then we should let them binge."

Spacey was the first actor to deliver the showpiece MacTaggart lecture at the annual TV festival.

A two-time Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty, Spacey last year starred in the drama series House Of Cards, which bypassed television channels and premiered on internet streaming service Netflix.

Spacey said the innovative form of distribution was proof that the TV industry could learn "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," he said.

Analysis

For decades TV was the poor relation to Hollywood. Kevin Spacey says his agent wouldn't have allowed him to talk to such a festival 15 years ago. Now everything has changed. If you want serious, engaging, complex drama, you go to TV.

Ten years ago there were dire warnings that traditional TV was dying. What's happened has confounded the gloom-mongers. Viewing hours have gone up and instead of attention spans withering, we are in a new age of "binge watching".

The question is, will we wait for programmes? Is the House of Cards model, of giving the audience everything at once, the future?

We've been here before with each new generation of video player. Each time the question is, is this the end of sitting down and watching what the schedulers give us? At the moment more than 80% of viewing is still done the traditional way. It's a habit that appears hard to break.

Netflix is not the only digital company to move into drama commissioning, with Amazon and Microsoft both investing in new series in the last 12 months.

Spacey said the success of House of Cards, whose 13 episodes were released on the same day, had provided all content-makers with new insights into audience behaviour.

"For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans.

"But 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," he said, "people can watch something three times the length of an opera."

He added: "The audience has spoken: They want stories. They're dying for them.

"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… and God knows what else.

"All we have to do is give it to them."

'Revolutionary'

His lecture began with a cautionary tale about "the suits" at traditional TV networks, who tinkered with programmes and tried to second-guess audiences.

The actor said the team behind House of Cards "got lucky" in that respect.

"We weren't asked to compromise or water down the story we wanted to tell by anyone."

Kevin Spacey Spacey has been nominated for a best actor Emmy for House of Cards

The actor also used the speech to call on the TV industry to be innovative and work harder to support new talent.

He encouraged programme-makers to "keep the flame of this revolutionary programming alive by continuing to seek out new talent, nurture it, encourage it, challenge it, give it [a] home and the kind of autonomy that the past and present - of our three Golden Ages of television - has proved it deserves".

"We get what audiences want - they want quality. We get what the talent wants - artistic freedom. And the only way to protect talent and the quality of our work is for us to be innovative.

"We also get what the corporations want, what the studios want, what the networks want - they want to make money and we need them to be profitable so they can continue to fund high quality production," he added.

Finishing his speech on a quote from Orson Welles, Spacey said: "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I just can't stop eating peanuts."

House of Cards was recently nominated for nine Emmy Awards, including one for Spacey for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.

The actor has also been the artistic director of London's Old Vic Theatre since 2004, where he has appeared in productions including Richard II and The Philadelphia Story.

In 2010 he was made a CBE by the Queen for services to the theatre.

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