French viewers were finally given the chance to watch the return of political thriller starring Kevin Spacey - after virtually every other key territory on the map.
Season two of Netflix’s House of Cards debuted in France last night (Mar 13), nearly a month after its headline-grabbing Valentine’s Day release to subscribers in the US, UK/Ireland, Latin America, Scandinavia and the Netherlands as well as in Germany and China, via other rights-holders.
Netflix is currently locked in negotiations with the French government over a potential autumn launch of their service in France. In the meantime, premium pay-TV channel Canal+ is handling the release of the political drama, putting it out on a three episode per week basis for subscribers.
Die-hard House of Cards fans in France were unlikely to be too excited about last night’s launch: most will already have watched the 13-part series at the same time as the rest of its global fans, via a US or UK Netflix account or a pirated version.
“At the office, we’ve all been talking about it, asking one another ‘have you finished it yet? Where are you up to?’ taking care not to reveal the plot to someone who has not seen a certain episode,” comments Amandine Schmitt, a Paris-based journalist for the website of weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.
The twenty-something journalist has been a subscriber to Netflix for some eight months, describing the experience in an article in January entitled I’ve spent six months on Netflix and yes it’s as fantastic as they say.
Theoretically, Netflix is not yet available to viewers in France. The company grants access to its services on the basis of a user’s IP address, indicating their location. But Schmitt circumvents this with the help of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service, which changes her IP address, masking her real location. VPN services typically cost around $5 a month.
Using a VPN is not illegal in France and Schmitt, who is also paying Netflix for access to its service through a PayPal account, is not breaking French law. There are no official figures for how many people use VPNs or other geo-block averter products in France but anecdotal evidence suggests their number is on the rise.
Nicholas Lin, founder of Toronto-based Unotelly, which specialises in VPN and DNS (Domain Name Server) products allowing people to watch their favourite television shows wherever they are based, says Netflix is a key driver of business to the site.
“As Netflix becomes more and more known around the world so does use of our services,” says Lin, noting Netflix is the most popular content platform accessed via Unotelly, followed by Hulu and then BBC iPlayer, the latter predominantly by Australians. He will not reveal total subscriber figures but French-based users account for 1.5% of its client base.
Unotelly is just one of many companies enabling viewers to access channels not theoretically available to them.
Schmitt notes, however, that despite the proliferation of such services, many of her contemporaries still turn to pirate sites when looking for TV and film content not available legally in France. Some, she adds, even regard piracy as an act of protest at what they consider to be France’s antiquated audio-visual laws and poor legal offering.
“We all wanted to see this show and think it’s absurd that we had to wait so long for it to arrive in France. We’re not prepared to wait,” says Schmitt, who has also been enjoying Orange is the New Black, Breaking Bad, The Office, Sherlock, The Fall, Louie and Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog as well as a host of films on Netflix long before they hit the screens of domestic broadcasters, if at all.
Rumours continue to swirl surrounding Netflix’s possible arrival in France. Local film and TV players are adamant the company should adhere to the same legislation as them if it decides to do business in the country.
It remains to be seen whether Netflix will sign up for France’s strict media chronology laws, stipulating a 36 month window between a film’s theatrical release and internet diffusion; EU programming quotas and obligations to invest in French and European content.
In the backdrop, parts of the local TV and film industry are calling for an overhaul of the country’s legislation surrounding when and how film and TV content can be distributed to bring it up to date with the digital age and the viewing habits of the younger tech-savvy, content-on-demand generations.
But even if Netflix does agree to adhere to French legislation, or the country softens its laws, this may not be enough to stop French viewers virtually crossing borders in search of TV and film content.
“When I listen to the current debate about Netflix’s arrival in France, I worry that on the French version there’ll only be local telefilms, that I’m not interested in,” says Schmitt. “And it’s not even clear if series three of House of Cards would be shown on the service or still on Canal+… if that were the case it’s not much point them coming.”