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House of Cards showrunner talks secrets, money and art

Eliza Mills Feb 26, 2015

A lot of secrecy goes into making “House of Cards.” The Netflix Original Series tells the story of Frank Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat and House majority whip turned President, caught up in power and politics in Washington, played by Kevin Spacey

The web-only show premiered in February 2013 to wide critical acclaim, and became the first of its kind to receive Emmy awards. “House of Cards” became part of the model of success for subscription-based streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Other series followed, and original streaming content changed the market for television, upending traditional weekly broadcasts and inspiring binge-watching trends.

The third season “House of Cards” was set to premiere on February 27, 2015, but one small hiccup got in the way: a 30 minute leak of the entire season. Netflix quickly took it down — but not before some users were able to load the entire first episode, and see short descriptions of the rest of the season.

 

But if he was concerned about the leak, Beau Willimon, creator and showrunner of House of Cards, isn’t saying so. Willimon feels that the leak was almost like a teaser.

“I take great pains to make sure that I don’t reveal anything about an upcoming season, and that sort of undid some of the work,” Willimon says, “but I don’t think there was a lot of harm done. And in fact, more than anything, it showed us how excited people were about season three … I wish we could take credit for it.”

Click the media player above to hear Beau Willimon in conversation with Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O’Leary.

Protecting the secrets surrounding a television show is an increasingly difficult task at a time when a small technical glitch can launch material to the front page of one of the most popular streaming sites in the world. Still, shows guard scripts, conceal episode information to people auditioning and keep filming locations quiet, preserving plot information until the moment of release.

But secrecy is complicated for streaming shows. “House of Cards” releases all of its episodes at once, so eager viewers could, if they wanted to, sit for hours in front of all 13 of them in a season. And some do. According to a report from the networking company Procera, 2 percent of Netflix subscribers binge-watched season two in one weekend. Once the season launches, the internet becomes a breeding ground for spoilers, and viewers are on their own when it comes to protecting show secrets.

“We don’t want to spoil anything for anyone,” Willimon says, “but when you release a show in its entirety in one day, within hours you have the potential for a smorgasbord of spoilers, and there’s nothing we can do to control that, but what we can control is prior to that launch, not giving too much away.”

Still, Willimon says he’s not writing for a binge-watching audience, and that when it comes to writing and producing the show, the mode of delivery doesn’t matter much to him. “I don’t really pay much attention or think much about that stuff too much,” he says, “my goal is only to tell the best story possible and if it brings subscribers, great. I think that’s a tension that really anyone working in television faces, no matter what type of network they’re writing for.”

Selling ads on network and cable TV is fairly clear cut — it’s easier to tell when a show is doing well and when it’s floundering, than it is when viewers enter through a streaming portal like Netflix. And Netflix is secretive about its users and how and what they consume on the site: In the two months after House of Cards first premiered on the site in 2013, Netflix reported 3 million new users.

“I think that the metric for success have been changing in television,” Willimon says, “it’s not necessarily just the objective number, how many people watched. For a lot of places, it’s about creating a brand, it’s about offering something to certain niches within your subscribership that they’re not getting anywhere else. When it used to be just about how much you could sell your ad time for, then that number really mattered.”

Willimon says that not even he knows how many people watch “House of Cards,” and can’t comment on rumored information about production costs for the show, which some reports say start at $4.5 million per episode.

“You’d have to ask Netflix that,” he says, “but if I were to speculate, I would say, ‘What incentive do they have? What is the advantage of telling people how many folks are watching your show, or the shows that you’re producing?’ It gives information to your competitors that you don’t necessarily need them to have, and since you’re not selling advertising, it doesn’t play into any meaningful equation in terms of how much revenue you’re going to get.”

Transparency isn’t necessary for success, neither in the Netflix business model nor in Underwood’s Washington D.C., where secrets and manipulations are a crucial part of power.

“In terms of secrecy as a theme, or a subject, I think it’s a fascinating one,” Willimon said, “and that really comes down to information as a form of power. Those that have information have a certain power over those that don’t. In the fog of war, that person or entity that can look farthest into the fog has an advantage.”

Withholding information, for Netflix and for Willimon’s fictional politicians, has helped pave the way to success. “When you’re writing a show about power, that’s one of the tactics for maintaining or acquiring it,” Willimon says, “to have more information than the next person, and to be secretive about the information that you have.”

That being said, Willimon isn’t giving much away about what’s ahead in season three. “What happens when you’ve achieved the highest office in the land? Many presidents have had to contend with that very question: Is the only way to go down? Do you have to fight to maintain your place on the summit? These are precisely the questions that we want the audience to be asking as they click into season three.”

Showrunner Beau Willimon and Robin Wright. Not long to go now… #Houseofcards

A photo posted by House of Cards (@houseofcards) on

 

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