Moving Away from Binge-Releasing
In 2015 the Collins English Dictionary assigned “binge-watch” as the word of the year, but the reach of that word stretches back to a couple of years prior. Netflix championed the binge-release model with House of Cards, which released its thirteen-episode first season in February 2013. That model has been the backbone of Netflix’s strategy ever since. While network and premium cable stuck to their guns with weekly releases, other streaming services, (Hulu & Amazon Prime) followed Netflix’s suit. Recently that exclusive consumer-driven model which once defined streaming services and their broader appeal has taken a pause.
This shift in trend leads back to the new kids on the block, Apple TV+ and Disney+. Apple released the first three episodes of the Emmy-nominated Defending Jacob and The Morning Show on the same day while adhering to a weekly schedule for the remaining episodes. Similarly, Disney’s marquee program The Mandalorian sticks to a weekly pace, except for the first season which released its first two episodes a couple of days apart. Traditionally, Hulu and Prime Video have dropped full seasons but their tactics tend to differ. Hulu sticks by the principal that Apple subsequently followed when it comes to drama series like The Handmaid’s Tale, Little Fires Everywhere and Mrs. America. Comedies, on the other hand, like Ramy and The Great release episodes en masse.
Prime Video which enjoyed substantial critical and commercial success with The Boys’ first season announced that the second season would enjoy a staggered release. The announcement generated a ridiculous amount of backlash. Prime have maintained the “simultaneous formula” for the vast majority of their other scripted programs including the similarly popular Jack Ryan. Moreover, on multiple occasions, a pilot has usually preceded a full season, sometimes in upwards of a year: The Man in the High Castle and Bosch included. The system which Netflix created and helped popularise was a move against traditional television and its networks. That objection included the weekly release, television’s defining factor, and one of the many features that separates it from other mediums. Unsurprisingly, the major networks, NBC, CBS, etc., and cable, notably HBO, have not changed their stances and show no signs of changing in the near future. Netflix remains the only major American service that has never released its scripted shows weekly.
So what’s driving this move? Most of it boils down to television’s greatest debate. The case for binge versus weekly viewing. There are dependent factors that differ from show to show. For example, The Handmaid’s Tale benefits from a more spaced out release which allows viewers enough time to process the show’s heavy material. The idea to air The Boys’ second season came from the show’s producers, a decision which Amazon apparently greeted with “reluctance.” Showrunner Eric Kripke elaborated, “…We want to give it time to marinate, so people can reflect on it and talk about it before they move on to the next thing.” Sounds about right. That point is the most convincing answer in the case for the linear market. For decades, the allure of television has been supported by the cliffhanger, the collective viewing experience (at the same pace, no less) and water-cooler moments.
Netflix’s model leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is it difficult to avoid spoilers, but creating a community around a show which comes and goes at a finger’s snap does no favours to maintaining said show’s cultural impact, and on a more personal level, conversation and discourse. The weekly model also allows the show to find its audience in due time. Look at HBO for evidence. Two of its best shows currently airing, the sophomore seasons of Barry and Succession showed promising inclines in ratings as the season progressed plus word-of-mouth, and buzz, (especially in the rabbit holes of Twitter) began to stir. A weekly release can sometimes be more apt for shows that are more polarising or trade a slow burn over whiplash set ups. Netflix usually cancels these type of shows.
On the other hand, binge-watching does come with its benefits. It prioritises the viewer, handing them, in a world of so much choice, the option to view at their own speed. Is there a middle ground? Often proposed is the method that Apple and Hulu sort of use. Release a few episodes a week. But when it comes down to the best viewing experience, is it viable, and which service would be the first to shake up the status quo? In the meantime, and this may well change if content starts thinning out, we could still be looking at an either/or situation.
Streaming’s attraction has been marked by binge-releasing. If Netflix chose to adopt this model, they would likely find the most success with programs like The Witcher or Stranger Things’ new seasons; both of which, namely the latter, enjoy a significant amount of hype that quickly fizzles out. Now that other services switch to the linear model, they have unintentionally paved the way for Netflix’s exclusivity. They almost have a motto they can run with.
We are constantly told that we are in an era of peak TV. What’s to come after this peak? Can history help us understand? The Golden Age of Hollywood was followed by a period of tumultuous Renaissance. The original Golden Age of Television was driven by the appeal of a new technology. Evidently, we’re somewhere in the dark to where all this mass producing will lead. It’s reasonable enough to assume that the peak has already been reached. If we’re to understand that after this peak, there will be a lull in growth, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing if the viewer slows down as well.