Spoiler alert: 'House of Cards' upends rules of viewer etiquette

Since screening the Season 2 premiere of "House of Cards" almost two weeks ago, I have been dying to talk about a showstopper of a moment in it.

But even though Netflix made all 13 episodes of the second season available to the public Friday, I still don't feel I can discuss what I saw without spoiling the surprise for some fans online or in social media.

Spoilers have long been an issue with DVR and on-demand viewing. But the new streaming, all-episodes-at-once distribution model introduced by Netflix with the launch of "House of Cards" last year has complicated the matter exponentially.

If there weren't strict guidelines in the TV-DVR-On-Demand era, there was at least an informal etiquette. After an episode aired on TV — say "Mad Men" on a Sunday night on AMC — recappers and viewers were free to discuss any and all content throughout social media and elsewhere online.

But there is no on-air debut date with Netflix that would allow us, as the final credits roll, to say, "OK, everybody in America had a chance to just see what I saw on AMC, so now it's OK to go all out writing about it."

The problem isn't limited to this one TV/media critic.

Thursday night, about nine hours before Season 2 dropped on Netflix, the verified Twitter account of President Barack Obama carried this tweet to its 41 million followers: "Tomorrow: @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please."

Netflix itself has launched a "Spoiler Foiler" feature in connection with Season 2 of the series that stars Kevin Spacey as a ruthless Washington politician. It's intended to keep tweets that might contain spoilers off the Twitter feeds of those who sign up with Netflix for the service.

"Behind on 'House of Cards'?" Netflix asks on its website. "Now you can check your feed without fear. Any tweets with danger words are hidden from your timeline. When you've caught up, it's safe to go back to normal Twitter."

Other critics, correspondents and pop culture analysts are grappling with the issue as well.

"I haven't seen the first four [episodes] yet, but because TV critics have said there's a huge plot twist in the first episode, I'm already avoiding all mentions of 'House' and 'Cards' on the Internet," Brian Stelter, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," wrote Friday in an email response to the question of how he's handling the matter.

"There must be a word for that behavior of rapidly scrolling past any Facebook message, tweet or Google result that sorta-kinda looks like it could spoil your favorite show," he added. "I suppose that's the only real defense against spoilers — dodging any and all online mentions."

On the other side of the equation, Stelter says that while he's decided how he will deal on his various media platforms with "the cone of silence" around episodes of "House of Cards," he expects pushback from some unhappy fans.

"For 'House of Cards,' my personal view is that the cone of silence — particularly for the very first episode — should stick around for 24 hours," he wrote. "The episodes came online early Friday morning, so by Saturday, I think it's fair to share/tweet/talk about what happened in the premiere episode without regard to latecomers. But I have a feeling this is an unpopular point of view!"

Stelter acknowledged that his 24-hour rule might be "colored by the fact" that he planned to watch the first episode Friday night after a Valentine's Day dinner.

"On the subject of spoilers, everyone is selfish," he wrote.

When and how it's OK to recap the whole 13-episode season is a "tougher" call, the Towson University graduate and former New York Times media reporter says.

"Maybe one week is a fair compromise, because these all-at-once releases are a little bit like a weeklong miniseries on television. That said, I feel strongly against websites putting plot twists in headlines even weeks after a release. It may help the search engine optimization of the site, but how does it help readers or viewers?"

David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR News, suggests "warnings and limits" for those discussing series like "House of Cards."

"Before posting about a show, unless you're doing a one-off, I'd say something like, 'People who don't want to know what's happening on House of Cards should unfollow me on Twitter or hide me on Facebook for a little while,'" Folkenflik wrote in an email.

"Those who are more orderly can warn: I'll be posting about a new HoC episode every 48 hours. Most of the people I see are articulating the emotion of their response rather than the details of the plot – but there are usually enough to give them away," he added.


Folkenflik also suggested "new acronyms for  labels with finer gradations: RNM (read no more if you don't want spoilers) or LSA (light spoilers ahead) or EOT (everything's on the table). "

Syracuse University professor Robert J. Thompson thinks "this spoilerphobia is perhaps being a little overstated as a deal breaker for the new Netflix-style distribution model."

"That Kristen shot J.R.; that Rosebud is the sled; that the woman in 'Crying Game' is a dude: Those are genuine single-datum spoilers that can be stumbled upon," he said. "But as I think about the first season of 'House of Cards' — or 'Breaking Bad,' for that matter — most spoilers would only come from long and detailed discussions. That Walter White dies in the end would probably have come as no surprise to anyone; even the way he died was not too spoiler-vulnerable."

But then, Thompson thinks some of the folks who complain loudest about spoilers are ... well, spoiled, and maybe a little self-absorbed themselves.

"My students got upset last week when I showed the final 10 minutes of [the Spike Lee film] 'Bamboozled' in class," he said "That movie was released 14 years ago. Did they think that the use of 'Bamboozled' in a class had to wait until they finally, if ever, got around to watching it? My rule of thumb is that spoiler etiquette should follow the rule of cashing a check: After 90 days, all bets are off."

If three months seems like a long time, consider this: Two Sun readers complained about a piece I wrote last Sunday that referenced the death of Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) in Season 1 of "House of Cards." Really!

The episode dropped a year ago; when exactly should I be allowed to talk about it?

There's a big difference between Stelter's 24 hours and Thompson's 90 days. And, as I said, I still don't know when I will feel it's OK to talk about Episode 1, Season 2 of "House of Cards."

Fans of the series were also sharing my ambivalence and frustration Friday after diving back into "House."

"That was an EPIC first episode of Season 2," @amyjonc tweeted Friday afternoon. "No spoilers here! But damn I'm biting my tongue."

For all the groundbreaking new-media aspects involved, what's happening with Netflix, "House of Cards," social media and spoilers is a familiar tale of postmodern American life: We have new technology and a savvy new business model to go with it, but we haven't yet figured out how to harness them to our social and cultural desires and needs. The human part always comes last, it seems.

Meanwhile, let me tell you all about the moment in Episode 1 when …

No, never mind. I still can't bring myself to do it.



Talk about Episode 1

Join David Zurawik and Sun editors Jordan Bartel and Anne Tallent in a live chat about Season 2, Episode 1 of "House of Cards" at noon Monday at baltimoresun.com/entertainment. Caution: Spoilers will be revealed!

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