SAN FRANCISCO — Even if it never wins another award, "House of Cards" already ranks among the most influential series in television history.
The political drama launched Netflix's expansion into original programming two years ago, a risky bet that might have toppled the Internet video service had "House of Cards" flopped and squandered its estimated $100 million investment. Instead, the show was an immediate hit with viewers and critics, giving Netflix the financial clout and creative firepower to further transform how we watch and define "television." And it spurred other online services such as Amazon.com Inc. and Google's YouTube to spend more on their own original content to create shows that rival those produced by broadcast and cable channels.
Season three debuted early Friday, giving fans a chance to see Frank and Claire Underwood continue their machinations, now from a hard-won White House perch. The show marks just one of more than 20 original series or movies that Netflix is scheduled to show this year. Producing that much original content would have seemed like a long shot before "House of Cards" first established Netflix as more than a convenient and cheap way to watch recycled TV series and movies previously released on DVD. Launched in February 2013, "House of Cards" was among the first major series to release an entire season at once, a move that fed into viewers' desire to devour several episodes at a time instead of having to wait a week to see another installment.
Many analysts now view "House of Cards" and Netflix's other award-winning series released a few months later — "Orange is the New Black" — as turning points in the company's evolution, similar to the impact "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" had for HBO. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings now regularly likens the company to the HBO of the Internet.
Just how many Netflix subscribers have watched "House of Cards" remains a mystery because the company has refused to reveal the viewership of any of its series. But this much is clear: "House of Cards" came along at a pivotal juncture for Netflix.
The Los Gatos, California, company was still recovering from a subscriber backlash triggered in mid-2011 by a dramatic increase in its prices and a bungled attempt to spin off its DVD-by-mail service. Undaunted, Netflix continued to commit billions of dollars to long-term licensing agreements with movie and TV studios while also spending heavily on an international expansion. Some analysts questioned whether the company could survive.
Wall Street's doubts have dissipated, and Netflix's service has become an entertainment staple around the world. Since "House of Cards" was released, Netflix's stock has nearly tripled to about $480 while its Internet video service has grown subscribers by 24 million subscribers to 57 million. Half of those gains have come in the U.S.
The momentum emboldened Netflix last year to raise its monthly streaming prices by a $1 to $9. There was little blowback from customers this time. Netflix's widening appeal may have also contributed to HBO's decision to begin selling its channel as a separate Internet service later this year. HBO hasn't yet announced its prices for the HBO Go service.
The next challenge for Netflix will be proving that it can consistently deliver series as good as "House of Cards," which has received 22 Emmy nominations and won four awards so far, and "Orange Is The New Black," which has collected three Emmy awards among its 12 nominations.
While some of Netflix's other original programs, such as "Hemlock Grove" and "BoJack Horseman," have attracted enthusiastic followings, they haven't proven to be a subscriber drawing card like "House of Cards," said Rosenblatt Securities analyst Martin Pyykkonen. "Netflix needs to get to the point where it's showing three or four high-quality shows like 'House of Cards" every quarter if it wants to retain subscribers," he said.