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

Dropping an entire season makes talking about TV in social media more complicated

  • Kate Mara in Season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards."
Kate Mara in Season 2 of Netflix's "House of Cards." (Nathaniel Bell for Netflix )
February 17, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

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.

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