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Last Friday, when I binge-viewed my way through the first season of House of Cards, I didn’t have a lot of time to consider what kind of effects the show might end up having on the state of television today; I was, after all, very busy trying to figure out exactly what Kevin Spacey’s duplicitous Congressman Underwood was plotting.
But a week later, the David Fincher-produced political drama has raised a number of questions about the current state of television — and what impact the Netflix (s NFLX) model of distribution might have upon it.
Spoiler etiquette — otherwise known as “When is it okay to openly tweet about what just happened on ?” — is a touchy subject for television fans who worry about being ruined for a show’s best twists. A few months ago, Sam Biddle at Gizmodo proposed the following rules, which work well for serialized fare:
- A seven day grace period for new episodes.
- Putting major spoilers on Twitter is a no-no.
- If it’s off the air, it’s fair game.
- Even outside of the grace period, a heads up about spoilers in mixed company is polite.
But how does the grace period work when everyone’s watching at their own pace? If, a month from now, I tell someone why the ending of House of Cards‘s “Chapter 7” is [SPOILER ALERT] very creepy, would they have the right to be upset?
Informally, many I’ve talked to are about halfway through the first season — and even if a friend says to me that they just finished Chapter 5, one of the consequences of binge-viewing is that episodes have a habit of blending together: Only the most attentive of viewers are able to remember exactly which episodes contain which plot developments (though the creepy sex scenes do stand out).
There’s no good answer for this yet, which means for the duration we’re probably going to see a lot of articles like Aymar Jean Christian’s at Televisual, which goes into detail about a character revelation from “Chapter 8,” but only after being heavily couched with spoiler warnings. It’s not terribly efficient, but ultimately the prudent approach — unless you want to be Miss Know-It-All from Netflix’s own ads.
Binge-Viewing: Bad for television?
The Onion AV Club, that sprawling nexus of television commentary, is approaching House of Cards with a two-pronged approach: Reviewing episodes on a week-by-week basis, while allowing commenters who have already binged a spoiler-soaked forum for discussion.
But the AV Club also ran a piece this week entitled “Could Netflix’s programming strategy kill the golden age of TV?”, in which TV editor Todd VanDerWerff observed that he may have liked House of Cards less if he was watching it on a weekly schedule:
Binge-viewing has advantages over watching episodes one at a time… Individual episodes’ flaws become magnified when viewers have a week between episodes to stew over them, but in the middle of a binge, those flaws are diminished, simply because it’s always time to move onto the next thing… I wouldn’t give any of the seven House Of Cards episodes I’ve watched higher than a B+, but I also wouldn’t go lower than B-. The show neatly splits the difference between being just good enough and never trying anything risky enough to turn off large portions of its audience.
A counterpoint by critic Jaime Weinman suggests that the new world order pushes us to evaluate shows as complete seasons, rather than on an episode by episode basis, which may ultimately create a stronger viewing experience:
After watching something for 13 hours, it’s difficult to know what the good parts or the bad parts are, or even to follow anything beyond the basic plot; everything blurs together. Yet that in itself is a possible argument for binge-viewing. Watching an episode a week tends to inflate the importance of every episode, sometimes beyond what a single TV episode can sustain. This, I think, is part of the reason that we’re more likely to be disappointed by new episodes of a series when they appear once a week, and why seasons often look better when they go to DVD or to daily syndication. The shorter the wait between episodes, the less of a life-or-death proposition every episode becomes.
But what definitely suffers is be the discussion of television online (which is probably one of the Top 10 internet recreations, right after pornography, fantasy football and cat videos). After all, it’s tough to talk about a show when everyone’s on a different episode — controlling their individual viewing, but at the expense of the communal experience.
House of Cards: Available on DVD and Blu-ray?
Speaking of internet commments — the question I’ve been seeing a lot of places is will the first season of House of Cards be released in disc form anytime in the future?
While yes, the market for physical media may be dying, it’s not dead yet: In 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times, DVD/Blu-ray sales actually increased (by a fraction) to $18 billion. People without Netflix subscriptions, whose binge-viewing is enabled by box sets, still exist — even Netflix still makes 50.1 percent of its profits off the DVD rental side of its business.
According to a Netflix spokesperson, Netflix currently has the first window of exclusivity for the series, but when that window is complete, Media Rights Capital (the production company behind the series) will also be able to pursue a home video release for the show. So, the odds are good that you’ll be able to give your thriller-loving grandparents Season 1 on Blu-ray as early as this summer.
This is just the beginning of Netflix’s 2013 of original content, and at the very least House of Cards is an exciting way to kick it off. Because love it or hate it, one thing is definitely true: It’s got people talking.