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Why Netflix shouldn’t have pulled the ‘House of Cards’ leak

What would Frank Underwood do?


Dan Marcus

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 16, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 12:58 pm CDT

Everything stopped last Wednesday when the highly anticipated third season of House of Cards got leaked on Netflix for a whole 30 minutes. You could almost feel the knee-jerk reaction of Netflix executives as they scrambled to pull the show, but not before people were able to get screengrabs of the upcoming episode descriptions. Some even managed to watch the very first episode before Netflix plucked the episodes back into the ether. According to showrunner Beau Willimon, however, Netflix shouldn’t have taken the content down. Willimon told reporters at Saturday’s Writers Guild of America Awards: “I think [Frank Underwood] would have taken all the credit. If you take credit for chaos, it suddenly becomes order. And that’s what he would have said, but in a Southern accent.”

The leak is just another in a long line of leaks, from the Sony scandal to four new Spice Girls songs. It’s almost impossible to avoid, and in today’s media climate, attempting to do so is like trying to shield yourself from spoilers. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, there are very few ways to avoid getting spoiled, unless you live under a giant rock. For the most part, it’s now the person’s responsibility to be caught up or suffer the consequences—like it or not. Similarly, people will argue that artists, studios, and businesses shouldn’t have to expect a leak—but whether or not you agree, you have to be ready for the worst anyway.

Surely the leak must have been embarrassing for Netflix, but as Willimon suggests, there was an easy solution to circumvent that embarrassment and turn it into something positive: Just let the show air early. It wouldn’t be the first time a piece of media was leaked early and instead of backtracking, a leak was embraced—not shunned. It’s really no different from Frank Underwood getting a political curveball and turning it into a home run. After the leak happened, Netflix’s House of Cards Twitter page tweeted this:

Yes, leaks happen in Washington all of the time—but politicians can’t afford to simply go back in time and pretend the leak didn’t happen. There have been plenty of instances in the past where something has leaked—whether that’s an album, a film, or an entire season of a show—and when an artist rolled with it, fans greeted the early release with applause.

For example, Bjork’s first album in four years, Vulnicuraleaked online back in January. Bjork released the album officially through iTunes just days later (although the CD and vinyl release is still set for the original March release date). Bjork took what could have been a disastrous situation and made it her own. Similarly, tracks from Madonna‘s Rebel Heart leaked online last December, to which the singer responded by dropping six warmly received tracks from the record. As Rolling Stone reported on the incident, “In the age of Spotify and iTunes, though, leaks can help build buzz. Madonna called her leak, traced to a suspected hacker in Israel, ‘deeply devastating,’ but the Rebel Heart tracks sold a solid 146,000 downloads.”

There’s something to be said when an artist uses an unfortunate accident as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Joe Coscarelli of the New York Times said it best: “In the online music age, advance leaks are all but inevitable … but the same distribution methods that make downloading stolen songs a breeze can allow artists … to make lemonade from a sour situation.” Jonathan Daniel, the comanager for Fall Out Boy, told Rolling Stone, “It’s kind of like if you open the present before Christmas. But it’s less of a big deal than ever.” 

While there’s been speculation the leak was a marketing ploy by Netflix to stir up buzz for the brand new season of the hit show, as Brian Moylan of the Guardian argues, that’s very unlikely. “An intentional leak seems to make very little sense,” Moylan writes. “If Netflix wanted people to get a sneak preview of the first episode (or more) why go through the ruse of the leak? It can do what it wants with its show and they lose nothing by releasing the first episode early.” When Netflix dropped the trailer for the third season during the Golden Globes without any warning, people went nuts. It makes a bit more sense that it was a simple error on behalf of Netflix’s technical team than a tactic to get people talking about the show (although the leak accomplished that anyway).

Remember: Robb is talking about a poorly reviewed movie no one at the studio even liked.

Similar speculation followed the release of The Interview after the Sony Pictures leak. The situation might have been devastating for all involved, but the company turned a public relations nightmare into a national phenomenon, simply by releasing it on iTunes and YouTube. After the film eventually hit theaters, Deadline’s David Robb shows just how big of a PR win the move was. “And I realized how brave it was of Sony Pictures, Rogen and his cohorts to make this film, something akin to poking fun at the Prophet Muhammad,” Robb writes. “And we all know how dangerous that can be. The Interview, it turns out, is not just a comedy; it’s a bold and outrageous political statement about a maniac who brainwashes, starves, imprisons and executes his people, all the while stockpiling nuclear weapons.” Remember: Robb is talking about a poorly reviewed movie no one at the studio even liked.

A company like Sony can afford a $40 million write-off, but it’s understandable for some artists—especially struggling artists—to be against the idea of pirating material when something they’ve created falls through the electronic cracks and leaks, especially those who need the monetary value of their creation to just survive. And hacks aren’t a walk in the park for major corporations, either. Following the DDoS attack on Sony PlayStation this Christmas, the company struggled to get its systems back online, urging customers to be patient. 

But in today’s marketplace, patience isn’t something brands can afford. Instead, it’s better to get with the times, both in terms of cybersecurity and corporate response that security is breached. Whether leaks are ethical or not, it would be better for artists, studios, and businesses to get on with the times rather than ignoring the world we live in today. You can bet if Netflix allowed the third season of House of Cards to stay online rather than taking it down, people would be talking about how amazing the third season is right now and not about this unfortunate leak.

Photo via Netflix/YouTube

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*First Published: Feb 16, 2015, 2:00 pm CST