'House of Cards' spawns a new kind of binge and competitive viewing

David Fincher directs Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara in 'House of Cards' scene.
David Fincher directs Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara in 'House of Cards' scene. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Kimaging)

Catalina Byrd's early-morning tweets last Saturday tell a tale of TV change.

"I said I was going to bed hours ago," one tweet written shortly after midnight began. "But then 'House of Cards' got me all caught up."

A little over an hour later, she wrote again, "After episode 3 goes off, I have to call it a night ... but tomorrow I'm right back on it …"

Later yet: "I made it to episode 5 …"

Byrd, a Baltimore journalist (@CatalinaByrd), is one of many who spent last weekend on the cutting edge of a new way to watch TV — or, more specifically, a new way to watch TV shows that were never on television — in the topsy-turvy world of massive media transformation these days.

"House of Cards," a $100 million production that premiered Feb. 1 on Netflix, made a Super Bowl weekend even crazier than usual for serious fans of pop culture. Instead of premiering on a cable channel like HBO or AMC and being portioned out one episode a week, the 13-episode first season of the Baltimore-made political drama was made available for instant streaming in one fell swoop.

And subscribers, some of them engaging in a new kind of competitive viewing, found just how much of a good thing they could handle — or not.

"That was the wonderful thing and the problem with it: They give it to you all at once," said David Hobby, (@strobist) author of the "Strobist" blog. "It was like when they give laboratory rats as much crack as they can handle. And they eat it all."

Hobby, a former Sun photographer, didn't exactly eat "House of Cards" all at once.

"But it just crept into every spare minute I had," he says. "I stayed up until maybe 4 in the morning [Feb. 2] watching. And I'm trying not to be obvious about it, so I'm watching after my wife is asleep."

How'd that work out?

"Then you get, 'Well, I thought we were going to watch that together,'" he says replaying his wife's words. "And I'm like thinking, 'There's no way you're going to be able watch it fast enough for me to wait up for you.' The compromise is that I'm going to watch it again with her at sane-person intervals."

His tweets tell the same kind of story as Byrd's.

Late night Feb. 1: "Quick question: Does seven episodes in a row count as binge-watching? #HouseOfCards."

Early morning Feb. 2: "Yo @Netflix. Releasing all 13 episodes of #HouseOfCards at once is like having a 2-lb bag of Ruffles in the pantry. Not always a great idea."

Later on Feb. 2: "12 down, one to go. #HouseOfCards #Bender #NoSleep #ChoresNotDone #EyesTwitchy #TwentyMinuteBreak."

Binge viewing, of course, is nothing new. Indeed, some of the finest series in the history of TV, like HBO's "The Wire" and NBC's "Friday Night Lights," found large audiences that savored their excellence in such marathon viewings after their ratings-challenged first runs on TV ended.

But that process of control by the viewer has been possible only after a series has gone through its first run on weekly TV and then become available on DVD. The viewer only gets control after the media gatekeepers are through doling it out week by week to a mass audience.

"I binge-view TV programs after the fact," Hobby says. "In fact, I usually wait to find out if something's really good and then catch up on it all at once. But this is different. This is something where you knew it was coming, you knew it was going to be good, and you knew it was all going to be there at once."

And the 13-episode, all-you-can-eat stream was the first run for this eagerly anticipated production starring Kevin Spacey.

Fizziology, a social media research firm that specializes in popular culture, has been tracking the social media conversation around "House of Cards" since its Feb. 1 debut. The project will continue for several more weeks, according to Ben Carlson, the firm's president.

The release generated more than 10,000 social mentions within the first 12 hours, with more than three out of every five comments considered positive. Super Bowl cut into that conversation on Feb. 3, but it was still going strong one week later, according Carlson.

"Certainly, there was a spike on that Friday and Saturday [Feb. 1 and 2]," Carlson says. "But it has continued with a lot of conversation in social media since then, too. It wasn't a one- or two-day wonder. It continues. One of the things you could see in the social conversation of the first weekend is people who were almost rushing to try and watch it before they had that deadline of the Super Bowl."

Carlson says one of the ongoing dominant themes of the conversation involves people "almost bragging about where they are" in the series.

"For this show, there almost seems to be a competitive race angle where people want to say how far along they are in their viewing of the show," he explains.

Concurrent with that is a new kind of "courtesy" with viewers "not wanting to talk about plot points or spoilers" because they don't know where others are in their viewing.

Carlson calls it the "dance around recaps and spoilers."

Viewers will give their opinion "of whether they liked it or not," Carlson says, but they won't "dive down into the specifics because no one wants to ruin it" for folks who may be on a different pace.

Indeed, the media themselves are uncertain as to how specific they should be in discussions of the show.

"It's so unique," he says, "because in this new world of social sharing of television and other entertainment forms, we're used to being involved in a communal activity where we all watched the same episode of 'Nashville' or 'Shameless.' But this is the first time where everyone simultaneously has that ability to binge-view at their own pace, and I think it has the potential to really change the way people share their television viewing opinions and habits."

It's too early to make any definitive call about that yet, according to Carlson.

"I think as we get two or three weeks into it, it will be great to look at a graph to see if there is a point in time when people tended to finish the show," he says. "When did the conversation start to taper off, and what does that say about the average pace at which someone went through all 13 episodes?"

For Hobby, the answer is: as quickly as he could.

"I finished about 13 waking hours after I started," the blogger says. "I slept some, and I stole a few on Saturday. I'm just like a social 'House of Cards' watcher. I can quit whenever I want — or, when I get to 13, whichever comes last. But I love it. I thought it was Kevin Spacey's best work since 'American Beauty.'"



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