Even When It Screws Up, Netflix Wins

Netflix/screengrab
'House of Cards'

'House of Cards' consumption on Netflix jumped more than 1,000 percent on Wednesday after a "technical glitch" at the streamer made the third season of the popular series available more than two weeks ahead of schedule.

For a glorious 25 minutes on Wednesday, it was Christmas in February for House of Cards fans, when a "technical glitch" caused the third season of the political drama starring Kevin Spacey to debut two weeks ahead of schedule. 

And then, just like that, it was gone. But not before Twitter exploded with a fire hose of tweets and GIFs and reviews and interpretations and reactions as to what they had seen.

Soon after, a winking tweet was sent from the House of Cards Twitter account noting, "This is Washington. There's always a leak. All 13 episodes will launch February 27." After an hour, the tweet had been retweeted 13,491 times and conspiracy theorists began speculating as to whether the "technical glitch" was in reality a publicity stunt.

One thing's for sure either way: Netflix is good at getting people to talk about it on social media, and that can lead to a rise in viewership. Consumption around House of Cards on Netflix spiked more than 1,000 percent on Feb. 11 compared with the day before, according to Amobee Brand Intelligence, creating a significant rise in awareness around the series when the premiere was still days out. 

If it was a publicity stunt, it was a masterstroke of marketing, dropping it into a dull Wednesday afternoon for media and television writers hungover from the double shot of news of the departures of Brian Williams and Jon Stewart from their respective shows the previous evening. If it was a true error, then it is clear that even when Netflix screws up, it still manages to get good press. 

The House of Cards leak was the second time this week Netflix managed to create major positive buzz for itself. The first, of course, was the streaming video service's announcement that it planned to launch in Cuba, a piece of news that was treated earnestly in most major media outlets despite the fact that less than 1 percent of Cubans have fixed-line broadband connections, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

“Now they just have to get the Internet,” Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos said at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Art on Monday, the day of the announcement.

Despite a dearth of broadband users in Cuba, Netflix spokeswoman Anne Marie Squeo insists that launching there was no publicity ploy and that it makes perfect economic sense.

"Cuba was the only country in the western hemisphere we didn't serve," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Natural extension of our plan to be totally global by end of 2016. We made clear in the release that this market will be one that evolves. No stunt. Just part of the overall plan."

But Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible speculates that marketing indeed is a factor in Netflix's Cuba play. "The Cuban move is part publicity and part ambition to lock up every region," he says. "There is not much of an opportunity in the country at this point and by being there they will likely prevent others from ever wanting to enter."

Nevertheless, the fact that Netflix leveraged the news of Obama restoring relations with Cuba into an announcement that it would launch there to such widespread coverage speaks to how well the company understands marketing and the network effects of digital media. Netflix knows as well as any media reporter that it is the new Apple in terms of generating traffic, which is why there is so much coverage of the company, and why there is no shortage of stories with headlines like: "Here's what's coming to Netflix this month" or "Here's what's disappearing from Netflix this month."

The virality of Netflix news is a simple calculus to understand: Its core subscriber base of cordcutting millennials overlaps quite significantly with social media's biggest power users. 

Netflix executives realized this early on, which is why the company's famous line of "becoming HBO before HBO becomes us" is less a business argument than a marketing position. Millennials, after all, love Netflix and hate everything having to do with cable.

Indeed, Netflix has been making unusual moves for years that seem bizarre on their face but then generate massive amounts of free publicity.

For example, in July 2011 CEO Reed Hastings posted on Facebook that Netflix members had watched more than 1 billion hours of content the month prior. Not only did his post get media attention, but so did the resulting inquiry by the SEC, which found it odd that the chief executive of a public company would use his Facebook page to disseminate material information.

Netflix knows its audience well and can drive strong press around its original programming moves. The streamer has become a safe haven for reboots of legacy IP with passionate audiences. Reports surfaced last week that the company was working with Nintendo to develop a live-action series based on 1980s and 1990s classic video game Legend of Zelda and blog posts dissecting casting for the series quickly proliferated. It's the latest in a long line of remakes for Netflix, which include the 2013 reboot of Arrested Development and the summer 2015 plans to adapt cult comedy film Wet Hot American Summer into a TV series. These projects, especially, have fueled the social media conversation.

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