Burlington Free Press: Congressman Welch, too, binges on House of Cards
Peter Welch was visiting his sister-in-law for Thanksgiving in 2013 when he watched his first episode of "House of Cards."
At the time, Welch had one thing in common with Frank Underwood, the lead character of the Netflix political thriller. Both men were Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, subsequently deceived his way into a big promotion.
On this Thanksgiving Day, Welch settled into the couch for S1, E1, Ch.1. "House of Cards" fans know this is Netflix lingo for Season 1, Episode 1, Chapter 1.
"We put on an episode, and it was tough to get me off the couch to have Thanksgiving dinner," Welch said. He binge-watched the first two seasons of "House of Cards" and has yet to see the recently released Season 3.
"I hate to admit, but I love it," Welch said. "It's pretty realistic, but the only thing that we haven't done down here yet is throw someone under a train."
His joke referred to probably the most famous scene in the three seasons (39 chapters) of "House of Cards," in which Underwood pushes a reporter onto the train tracks as a subway approaches a D.C. metro station. This little murder not only took the life of the reporter, but killed the sex between Spacey and Kate Mara (who played the reporter).
Yet murder aside, and Underwood doesn't limit himself to one, certain aspects of "House of Cards" ring true to political life in the nation's capital, Welch said.
"It's realistic in capturing the flavor and the pace and the complexity of the House of Representatives," he said. "What's unrealistic — and John Boehner would probably be the first to tell you — is this guy Frank Underwood. Frank Underwood around here would be regarded with supernatural powers. Besides being devious and cynical, he's really effective in getting things done."
If you have to get things done — go to work, walk dogs, legislate in the U.S. House — you perhaps haven't had time to watch Season 3 in its entirety. The 13-episode season was released Feb. 27.
A prolonged viewing session, four or five episodes at a shot into the early morning hours, could help you run through the full season in abbreviated time. But there are impediments, this time around, because of inferior or horrendous story lines: the first lady and the U.N. ambassadorship, trouble in the Jordan Valley, the haunting and hunting of a born again ex-prostitute.
Still, a hallmark of "House of Cards" — along with Frank Underwood's initials (F.U.) and Robin Wright's posture (Wright plays the first lady) — is the manner in which it's released and viewed. You can watch the ad-free Netflix series, streaming online, any time, any pace, almost any place.
To binge or not to binge
Watching a string of episodes one after the next with no built-in breaks is commonly known as binge watching. Jason Mittell calls it compressed viewing. He is a professor of media studies in the department of film and media culture at Middlebury College.
Three or more episodes in a sitting constitutes a binge, Mittell said.
There are "major downsides" to watching a TV show this way, Mittell said. One concerns the loss of a kind of community conversation that takes place when people watch a television series at a set time on a shared schedule.
"We can't have a conversation about the show unless you're on my couch and we're watching together," Mittell said. "What just happened for me is not the same thing that just happened for you."
This is in contrast to a show such as "Lost," Mittell said, in which a share of the show's popularity and joy was derived from the "tension between episodes and the fact that millions of people went online to participate in 'Lost' forums that theorized and analyzed the program."
"I believe that 'Lost' would've completely failed had it been released seasonally," he said. A weekly series that aired on ABC, "Lost" ran from 2004 to 2010.
The traditional broadcast schedule, in which shows are broadcast weekly or daily for soap operas, was designed to get consistent attention of viewers to sell time to advertisers, Mittell said.
The change in viewing habits started to occur when network television and HBO released entire seasons on DVD.
"Some people chose to wait to watch the whole thing as a bound unit," Mittell said.
Packaging serials in bound editions dates to 19th-century literature and work by Charles Dickens, Mittell said. Dickens would release his work in installments before the complete novel was published in book form, he said. Similar precedents exist with comic strips, which can be read daily or in a bound volume of reprinted work.
In essence, "House of Cards" is a 13-hour episode with a one-year gap between episodes.
"That's not the way most people consume television," he said.
The effect of a seasonal release is a show that "makes a big impact on the public consciousness upon its release, but then it dwindles very quickly," Mittell said.
His sense is that "far fewer people watch 'House of Cards' than the media would have you believe. It's just that the people who watch are very loud and influential."
Netflix doesn't share viewer numbers, a spokesman said by email.
"I would bet that the viewership of 'House of Cards' is about a fifth of 'Scandal,'" Mittell said, referring to the ABC series that also centers on Washington politics.
For Netflix, "House of Cards" is about creating a brand, he said.
“You watch what you want, when you want. If you marathon it or draw it out over 13 weeks, it's up to you. That's their brand.”Jason Mittell, Middlebury College media professor
"You watch what you want, when you want," Mittell said. "If you marathon it or draw it out over 13 weeks, it's up to you. That's their brand."
Attaching an Academy Award-winning movie star and a Hollywood producer/director to the project was a crucial strategy for launching the platform, he said.
"Netflix will eventually make the economic decision that 'House of Cards' is no longer working for them," Mittell said. "They're certainly losing money on 'House of Cards.' Production costs are too high to be earning that much money."
The show is a "loss leader," Mittell said, designed to "raise brand name and to attract more subscribers as a long-term strategy."
A Netflix spokesman said by email the company doesn't share the revenue of particular shows. "We earn money from people who subscribe to Netflix. Some of those watch 'House of Cards., '' he wrote.
Netflix says it has 57 million subscribers. The least expensive subscription is $7.99 per month.
What's interesting to Mittell about seasonal releases are the possibilities they present for narrative storytelling, he said. The format lends itself to productions with layered and complex story lines, many characters, and the creation of a "larger tapestry."
Two seasons of binging, one of yawning, and then ...
Liza Cowan, a South Burlington artist, is an "adamant" TV-watcher who is adamantly careful about what she watches, she said.
Cowan has multiple viewing subscriptions that allow her to watch television without advertising or interference from unwanted shows, at a time and pace of her choosing.
"I do not have to be subjected to any kind of show or ad or news or whatever that either I don't feel is good for me or that will totally suck me in and I won't do anything else," Cowan said.
She came to "House of Cards" through the original British version, which she loved.
"I really liked the secret government," Cowan said. "Not only the secret government but the secrets of government. I like conspiracy theory TV shows or movies."
Cowan binge-watched Seasons 1 and 2 of "House of Cards."
"The character development, how the actors are doing, the rapport between the actors and characters, those are the kinds of things I'm watching for," Cowan said. "I can see them better when I'm just really paying attention to one after another."
Somewhere around episode 4 or 5 of Season 3, Cowan lost interest in "House of Cards."
This is understandable: Season 3 slows down in its middle episodes, and employs worn-out conceits.
Some of us plugged away. A reward for persevering came at the end of S3, E6, Ch. 32.
The president and first lady are at deep odds with one another on an Air Force One flight from Russia to Washington. After a sharp and nasty exchange between the two, Underwood stares into the camera, at the viewer, and asks a question — an excellent one:
"What're you looking at?"
How's it playing in D.C.?
•U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and his wife, Marcelle Leahy, love the show, Leahy's spokesman David Carle wrote in an email.
"They don't get to watch much TV but they have taken two seasons of the show on DVDs to their home in Middlesex, where they make popcorn and cuddle up to watch," Carle wrote.
•U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders has not seen "House of Cards," he said through a spokesman.
•U.S. Rep. Peter Welch watched the first two seasons of "House of Cards" and has yet to watch Season 3, he said last week. "I'm a binger," Welch said. "I'm definitely a binger."