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Who’s Watching ‘House of Cards’? (And Why It Really Matters)

No one knows who should be worried by Netflix's new drama — and that may be the scariest scenario of all

It's possible that up to 2.7 million people watched at least one episode of the new Netflix drama "House of Cards" the day after its release.

But we really can't say.

Such an audience would rival that of some premium cable dramas, but not most network shows.

If that's the actual audience, that is.

We'd like to provide you with more than a speculative figure, but we can't. Netflix isn't releasing any numbers, and has no immediate plans to. So we're relying on some clever analysis from the broadband firm Procera, which monitored some of the country's largest cable and DSL networks on Saturday to extrapolate that between 1.5 million and 2.7 million people watched one or more episodes.

Netflix declined to comment.

Why won't Netflix share its actual numbers? Precisely to avoid articles like this one, which — with solid numbers — might gauge Netflix's early success against that of broadcast and cable networks.

Also read: 'Downton Abbey' Comes in Second to Super Bowl

With that apples-to-apples comparison, we could tell you with some degree of certainly who should be worried about Netflix's huge gamble on the Kevin Spacey-David Fincher political saga: Broadcasters? HBO? Showtime? 

But no one outside of Netflix knows anything. And for TV executives, that might be the scariest scenario of all.

The Internet has wounded or killed many brick-and-mortal entertainment outlets — music stores, book stores, movie theaters — because it can provide an entertainment experience that doesn't require consumers to leave home.

Television has fared better than other media, in part because it is arguably as convenient as the Internet — and had a half-century head start on creating entertainment. TV and the Internet are closely interwoven, with networks and studios providing previously-aired shows for services like Netflix.

Also read: Netflix Raising $400M in Debt to Fund New Shows

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes brushed off attempts to pit Netflix against his company's HBO in an earnings call Wednesday. He noted that many Warner Bros. shows are available to Netflix subscribers — even as he stressed that his company is far ahead of Netflix in creating originals.

Bewkes said HBO now has 114 million subscribers — nearly four times as many as Netflix does. He said HBO has offered original shows for 25 years, adding: "It takes a while to get it up to scale."

But that isn't the only reason Netflix has no obvious competitor. There's also the fact that Netflix is doing something no one has done before.

The video-on-demand service is pouring millions of dollars into a high-quality show that isn't actually on TV. It is also offering all 13 episodes of the first season at once, like chapters in a book or songs in an album, instead of demanding that viewers tune in at a certain time.

The question now is whether other online outlets can — will you indulge us one card joke? — follow suit. One advantage of not sharing its viewership is that Netflix gets to give "House of Cards" time to thrive before networks or ratings-obsessed reporters can dismiss it.

"House of Cards" cost Netflix an estimated $100 million for its first two seasons, as much as the most expensive prestige dramas. It will have to turn a profit for Netflix, by drawing in and keeping subscribers, in order for the streaming service or other Internet outlets to take similar risks.

Last year, Netflix aired the original drama "Lilyhammer," which also aired on Norwegian TV. In May, it will offer new installments of "Arrested Development," which aired for three seasons on Fox.

Also read: 'House of Cards' Reviews: Will Kevin Spacey's Netflix Series Revolutionize TV?

If enough other online outlets can produce original content — profitably — the day may someday come when we can't remember why we ever left scripted shows to networks.

Broadcast television could become the domain of live singing shows and football games — which, by the way, are currently the highest-rated programs on television, in part because viewers must watch them live if they don't want to be behind their friends.

For the time being, though, Netflix can't compete with networks that produce dozens of shows each year and offer original programming almost around the clock.

"Netflix can't launch a full slate of TV shows like CBS and NBC can, but they can pick up certain properties that will be critically acclaimed to get some response for them," said Cam Cullen, the Procera analyst who estimated the number of people who watched at least part of the 13-episode season Saturday, the day after its release. (He said at least 500,000 watched the last episode Saturday, suggesting they had also watched the ones that led up to it.)

If Netflix isn't close to rivaling networks yet in terms of quantity, its best bet is to try to match premium cable outlets like HBO and Showtime in terms of quality. "House of Cards," like HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and Showtime's "Homeland," has received glowing reviews.

It is also getting good word of mouth.

Because of the Super Bowl — and because Friday and Saturday nights are in large part TV dead zones — there were few new shows to compare with "House of Cards" over the weekend in terms of social networking mentions. 

PBS did bravely air a new episode of the critically praised "Downton Abbey" on Sunday — and "Cards" received more Twitter mentions than it did. At the high point for "Downton" Sunday, it had about 17,000 mentions — 5,000 fewer than "Cards," according to the analytics site Topsy.

Twitter mentions don't always translate to TV ratings. Just ask NBC's "Community," an Internet darling that is always close to cancelation.

But "House of Cards" isn't a TV show.

It's an Internet show.