In an unexpected move Tuesday, Netflix announced it would stream a new original TV series starting February 6 with Steve Van Zandt, known for his role as Silvio on the Sopranos and as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
The series, "Lilyhammer," centers on a mobster, Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, who enters the federal witness protection program and becomes inspired to go to Lillehammer, Norway, after watching the 1994 Winter Olympics. He sees Norway as place as a paradise of "clean air, fresh white snow, and gorgeous broads." However, throughout the show's short eight-episode first season, Frank finds that his idealized view of Norway doesn't jive with reality. Unlike broadcast TV, all the episodes of the series will be released at the same time, so you don't have to wait a week between installments.
In addition to starring in the show, Van Zandt will be writing for it, as well as acting as an executive producer.
Another Netflix original series, "House of Cards," a political thriller starring Kevin Spacey, has been scheduled for later this year. Netflix paid $100 million for the exclusive rights to stream all 26 episodes of that show.
By making a foray into original programming, Netflix is following a road map forged by cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and AMC. It can be a risky move, but one that can have great rewards, if successful.
The announcement came as the online entertainment company released its viewing numbers for the last three months of 2011, which showed that its subscribers gobbled up two billion hours of streaming video during the period.
That was good news for the pioneer in DVD mailers, which had a bad year of historic proportions in 2011. Its stock price alone crashed from $300 a share during the summer to around $75 by the end of the year, as the company made one bonehead move after another, from increasing prices on its service to bifurcating its DVD and streaming services to limiting the number of video streams that could be watched simultaneously.
Those gaffes hurt Netflix, but if its new original content can improve its image and can continue to attract viewers to its streaming service, 2012 will be a better year for the company. But, then again, it would really have to work to make this year worse than 2011.