How Netflix And “House Of Cards” Are Turning The TV Marathon Into A Sprint
The rumblings began around 1 a.m. on Feb. 14: Something big had happened on House of Cards.
It was a little late at night — or early in the morning, depending on how you look at it — for these kinds of hushed, spoiler-laden whispers. But House of Cards isn’t like other shows. Following the model it has used for all of its original series, Netflix releases an entire season at once, allowing viewers to watch the 13 new episodes of House of Cards at their leisure.
At least, that’s the idea. When social media is already buzzing with hints of a major, game-changing event in the first episode of the show’s second season, it’s hard not to feel pressured to watch right then and there — even when it’s the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day. Your choices are to stay up watching House of Cards and miss out on sleep, or to take your chances and watch it over the next week, putting yourself at risk for getting inadvertently spoiled. Simply put, there’s nothing leisurely about it.
The question of when to freely talk about a new episode of television is a tricky one, with more and more viewers watching shows on their DVRs or via streaming services days after the fact. At the same time, the rise of Twitter and Facebook — particularly in conjunction with the “second screen” experience of live-tweeting — begs for instant, up-to-the-minute reactions.
So how does that work for a show like House of Cards, without a set viewing schedule? Frankly, it doesn’t. As BuzzFeed’s Jace Lacob put it in a piece for the Daily Beast last year:
With viewer engagement so fragmented, open conversation about the show becomes something perilous, tinged as it is with potential spoilers. The old adage that once something has aired, it’s no longer a spoiler can’t be applied here, as all 13 episodes are available and therefore “aired.” But how does one discuss the show — and thus evangelize it — when it’s impossible to talk about specific plot points without alienating friends and family? It’s nearly impossible.
In fact, it’s a bit of a lose-lose situation. Those who finish early have only each other to talk to and constantly risk spoiling friends who haven’t caught up. Meanwhile, those pacing themselves live in constant fear of spoilers — and once they’re ready to reflect on the season, those who finished early are already over talking about it.
Season 2 of House of Cards presents a unique challenge, because the season premiere offers perhaps the most shocking moment yet (presented here with ample spoiler warning!): Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), grown tired of Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) and her investigation into his past misdeeds, pushes Zoe in front of a moving subway train, killing her. Despite the fact that Zoe’s counterpart on the original British House of Cards, Mattie Storrin, was killed at the end of the first miniseries, Zoe’s sudden violent death was a genuine “holy shit” moment — one that prompted many viewers to take to social media and react, some in the vaguest terms possible to spare their unspoiled friends, and some with little regard for those who couldn’t start watching House of Cards the second it was released on Netflix.
But even the subtle allusions to a big event can spoil it, as it did for me, a latecomer to House of Cards. I caught up with the first season over the past weekend. By the time I made it to the first episode of Season 2 Sunday night, I had pieced together that somebody died, that it was very likely Kate Mara’s character Zoe, that Frank did it, and that it involved a train. (I can thank the person who decided to tweet a train emoji along with a #spoiler hashtag for that last tidbit.) As annoyed as I was by the fact that the shock value of the moment had been diminished for me, I couldn’t really blame my social media friends. The real problem here remains with Netflix and a model that just isn’t sustainable in 2014.
There’s no denying the thrill of binge-watching, and House of Cards — with Underwood’s pawns shifting into place over the course of a season — is ideal for watching all in one go. At the same time, the potential pleasure of the experience has now been soured by spoilers: Even the fear of being spoiled can make the internet an unpleasant place. Those of us who are still behind on House of Cards check Twitter and Facebook with our hands over our eyes, hoping that we won’t see the one tweet or update that gives away too much about an episode we haven’t seen yet. (Filtering to avoid the phrase “House of Cards” doesn’t help much either, as people tweet about the show in terms of its characters or plot details.)
The problem is that the fear of spoilers then becomes the primary motivating factor for catching up. Suddenly it’s a race to finish House of Cards rather than a genuine desire to continue. This might sound silly to some, but the fear is legitimate: When Breaking Bad aired its final batch of episodes last year, viewers were essentially forced to either watch the episodes as they aired, or avoid the internet entirely. It’s stressful enough when it’s one episode a week, but for House of Cards, fans need to sit through all 13 hours of television — released in a single day — before they can comfortably enjoy the internet as a spoiler-free zone.
In a perfect world, people simply would not spoil — but with the Netflix model, even that suggestion is fraught with complications. At what point does it become appropriate to reveal plot details from House of Cards? How much time can we reasonably allow everyone to catch up on an entire season? And if we wait too long — and this ties into the inherently competitive nature of social media — won’t someone else beat us to the point we were going to make?
The model may be working for Netflix (although who can be sure without access to their viewership numbers?), but it’s a burden to viewers. TV should not feel like a race, something to slog through just to breathe easy on the other side. As entertaining as House of Cards is, the show loses something when it becomes a marathon out of necessity and not desire. Would it be cruel to make viewers wait a week for each new episode? Perhaps. And yet, the classic viewing model would still be preferable to expecting us to navigate the current model’s murky, spoiler-filled terrain.