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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: How 'One Life to Live' will alter American politics

Kevin Spacey stars in the Netflix original series,

Kevin Spacey stars in the Netflix original series, "House of Cards," an adaptation of a British classic. Credit: AP

What do Kevin Spacey, "All My Children" and the future of American politics have in common?

In a word, everything.

The first two point to how most Americans will get their entertainment in the not-too-distant future, and that alone will flip political communications on its head, in more ways that we can possibly imagine.

Spacey is starring in the smash-hit series, "House of Cards." Try to find it on a television channel: You can't. "House of Cards" only airs on Netflix, which at the end of the day is a website.

Same goes for "All My Children," the blockbuster soap opera that ran on ABC from 1970-2011. The Internet is giving "All My Children" and its older ABC cousin "One Life to Live" another life to live, it was announced this week. New episodes of both are now airing on Hulu-Plus, another streaming video site. I can't wait to tell my mother-in-law.

These are not rinky-dink productions. They are of the same quality as the best television programming, rendered to run on screens ranging from phablets to 60-inch, 3D-capable televisions. To give you an idea of its reach, Netflix has now surpassed HBO in U.S. subscribers.

It's a no-brainer, then, that politicos would chase eyeballs wherever they go . . . and they are. The current campaign trend is to speak to these online viewers with 15- and 30-second video spots, just like on traditional television, but now running on Hulu and YouTube.

But the implication of what this media diffusion will mean to the future of politics runs far deeper than that -- indeed, over the long term, it may very well neuter efforts to impose spending limits on political speech.

What the Hulu and Netflix model makes possible is an infinite number of television channels, for lack of a better term. Every web address can now potentially house a full-blown entertainment site. And if it can host an entertainment site, it can host a news or advocacy site that eventually can compete with network television.

This is not a new revelation. Huffington Post, the Daily Caller and Politico have been fully functional news operations for a few years. American newspapers, including this one, have a robust online presence.

Advocacy news isn't unknown on the video side either: Fox News and MSNBC have strong ideological viewpoints; on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart hosts a popular liberal advocacy program that, very successfully, uses humor to attract viewers.

But what we are witnessing through Hulu and Netflix programming is the long-promised merging of the Internet and television, and in a form that's not just geared toward hipsters. It opens up extraordinary opportunities for groups and individuals who can cobble together enough production dollars to create their own "news" broadcasts.

There are some out there already -- like "Town Square," a YouTube-hosted opinion-news program -- but they are pioneers cantering on the tundra. The well-heeled thoroughbreds will almost definitely follow the path as more and more voters grow accustomed to watching television-like content online.

Anyone who thinks there's a lot of money in politics today will probably be shocked 20 years from now at how little there once was in these more innocent days. Because we're not just learning to micro target voter interests down to the color and hue, we're learning how to multiply the number of currently available opinion news channels on the head of a pin -- and put them up against the nightly news.

This isn't happening tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. But it's definitely happening the day after that. The Information Superhighway Internet is growing more powerful before our very eyes. Good luck trying to rein it in.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.