The rise of TV binge-watching, and the death of the spoiler alert

Netflix has put all of its new House of Cards series online in one go. It's like a boxset without a boxset - but will it ruin the social aspect of telly viewing?

In the last week or so, my Twitter timeline (a self-selected crowd of pop culture enthusiasts such as myself) went a little bit nuts. The reason? An American remake of House of Cards, the wildly influential 1990 TV series starring Ian Richardson as fictional Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (“You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”) had finally been released.

These days, the main man’s been relocated to Washington DC where he is called Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and is a Democratic congressman playing the long and not entirely diplomatic game after a betrayal. I’ve only seen the trailer, but everyone seems more or less blown away by it so far – one enthusiastic viewer compared it to State of Play, which is for my money, one of the best television series of all time, so there’s pressure. But critical success or not, the really interesting thing about House of Cards (2013) is the mode of its release. All thirteen episodes of Season 1 have been released at the same time, so you, the viewer, gets to dictate the pace of your consumption. We have finally achieved something I did not think I would see in my lifetime: The Boxset Dream Without The Boxset.  

The series was commissioned by Netflix – not usually found in the business of acquiring original programming (that’s the preserve of HBO etc), but streaming it. The true joy of House of Cards lies not in the pedigree of the crew and cast – Spacey’s co-star is Princess Buttercup herself, Robin Wright – which is of course, desirable and welcome. No, it is its instant availability, crucially at the same time as it is being aired in America that makes this drama super-glossy and revolutionary. Fans of popular culture are almost always acolytes of the School of Instant Gratification, and those of us based in these British Isles having become used to occupying the position  of the ugly stepchild: almost always several months (sometimes years) behind on the best (and in the interests of fairness, worst – hello, FlashForward) of American television-programming, if we receive it at all. Cast off your entertaino-shackles, brethren – no more! It’s a genuinely exciting prospect.

One of the good things about being constantly late to the party was the option of binge-watching.  As director and executive producer David Fincher has it: “The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there's reason to believe they will do it."He’s right. We’ve all done it – it’s how I watched superior American television like Deadwood, The Wire, Party Down and Friday Night Lights among others – and we know it to be good. In fact, there is no joy quite like that which is to be found at 1.30am, as you bargain with yourself about how many more episodes you can watch and still be productive in the morning.

With new innovations like Netflix’s latest move will come new questions about how to frame spoiler alerts. A few people have already issued gentle warnings: “I’m giving you two weeks,” tweeted one. “Then it’s spoiler city on House of Cards.” Others have promised dedicated hashtags or just suggested followers mute them for a good long while.

Those of us who live a solid chink of our lives on the internet know the Spoiler Avoidance dance well. Only last week, my Tumblr dashboard turned against me when it began throwing up gifs of a much longed-for event on an American sitcom. That kiss (I will give no more information for fear of incurring viewer-wrath of my own) came up at least ten times in gif and YouTube clip form in less than an hour. In the parlance of the medium, “Tumblr no curr” if your geographical location means you have to wait months for the networks in your country to pick up the second season of a wildly successful show before you can see a seminal lip lock. Tumblr will post those gifs until the cows come home – and sure, you can filter out specific tags to avoid the worst of the spoiling, but there are always breaches. Sometimes, I’ve been using a particularly entertaining gif as a catch-all response on my dashboard only to find the context of its origins watch a show months later.

Death, taxes and spoilers – the new trio of life’s terrible guarantees.

So I’ll be signing up to Netflix, simply because I want to watch this new series. And I will probably watch all thirteen episodes in two long binges over one weekend. It’s not the same as getting Parks and Rec, Scandal and Community at the same time as fans in the States, but for now, it’ll do.

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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