Back in 2013, when Netflix released every episode of its first original series, House of Cards, at once, the move seemed like a no-brainer. Thanks to DVR and streaming services, tuning in at 8 p.m. on Monday or else missing out on the episode was already a thing of the past. So, why stick to an archaic, artificial release schedule instead of allowing subscribers to watch at their own pace?
Today, the answer to that question is clear: to make more money. Disney and HBO have demonstrated the business perks of releasing episodes one at a time on their streaming services with recent hit series The Mandalorian and Watchmen.
Both strategies — binge and one-at-a-time releasing — give viewers the freedom to watch a show when and how they want. Disney and HBO customers can still catch every episode already released — as long as they have a Disney+ subscription, that is.
But by releasing episodes one at a time, Disney and HBO give customers a reason to keep subscribing over time. Netflix viewers, on the other hand, can get through an entire season of their favorite show and unsubscribe before the weekend is over. Using free trials to get through new content and quit before paying anything is a strategy that works for Netflix, but for Disney and HBO, it would get customers through only a few episodes.
According to Netflix, around 64 million households — out of around 150 million subscribers at the time — had watched season three of Stranger Things within the first month of its July 4 release last year. But Netflix also lost U.S. subscribers that same quarter for the first time since 2011.
Losing subscribers was expected after the company hiked prices in May 2019. But search interest around the show ebbed in a similar manner. According to Google Trends, search traffic for Stranger Things spiked during the release week, but by the end of the month, interest had dropped back down to its prerelease levels and never reached its peak again. Meanwhile, Disney’s The Mandalorian saw less search traffic overall, but its traffic saw consistent weekly spikes as episodes were released, starting with the launch on November 12.
Today, keeping viewers interested for a longer period of time is as valuable as attracting more viewers in the first place. Subscribers have many more subscriptions to choose from than when Netflix first released House of Cards. It’s tempting to subscribe to each service for just a short amount of time. Maybe a customer doesn’t want to spend $16 per month on Netflix for an entire year, but paying for a month to watch Stranger Things and a few other shows, and then canceling, could work. They can rinse and repeat for the next subscription service.
For Disney, the math is a little different. Anyone who’s passively interested in The Mandalorian but not interested enough to watch week to week could tune in now that all the episodes have aired and watch the entire season for a one-month subscription fee of $7 before canceling. However, the die-hard fans who wanted to watch every episode as it aired had to subscribe for at least two months to stay up to date. That put their total price for the season at $14, doubling Disney’s income versus dropping all the episodes at once—and giving viewers more time to get hooked on other content.
HBO Now uses the same release strategy as Disney but is able to sell its subscriptions at $15 per month, on par with Netflix. Because the service releases episodes of its hit shows on a weekly basis, a viewer interested in keeping up with the release schedule for Watchmen — which aired from October 20 through December 15 — would need to subscribe to HBO Now for two months and spend $30. Conveniently, HBO’s other hit show airing alongside Watchmen was His Dark Materials, and wouldn’t you know it, the last episode of that show aired on December 22. If a viewer subscribed when Watchmen premiered on October 20, they’d need to shell out one more payment — for a total of $45 — to catch the finale of His Dark Materials. For just two shows, HBO’s strategy of weekly releases has squeezed three months of subscription fees out of viewers.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping a subscriber from simply waiting to tune in when all the episodes of their favorite shows have been released — and, in fact, many do. But by slowly releasing episodes, Disney and HBO have built sustained hype. The Mandalorian launched before Thanksgiving but kept consistent search traffic through the release of the latest Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker, just before Christmas.
The model used by Disney+ and HBO may allow those companies to invest in fewer shows, while keeping subscribers engaged longer.
In addition to being savvy business, watching one episode at a time may actually be a better experience for some viewers. Bingeing is gratifying in the moment, but our brains aren’t wired to retain large amounts of information when it’s poured in so quickly. In education, putting time between lessons is called the spacing effect. The more space a student has between sessions, the better they’re able to retain knowledge. A similar effect can happen when viewers watch a single episode of a show per week. There’s time to discuss, theorize, and internalize the story before moving on to the next episode.
Ultimately, there’s no “right” way for viewers to watch a show — bingeing and weekly viewing are both valid — but there may end up being a more profitable way. Netflix famously has had to take on increasing levels of debt — the company borrowed a reported $2 billion in 2019 alone — to fund its original content lineup. That investment starts to look trickier when new content is dropped on subscribers all at once and just as quickly made irrelevant by the next expensive show.
The model used by Disney+ and HBO may allow those companies to invest in fewer shows, while keeping subscribers engaged longer. To maintain its hook on subscribers after The Mandalorian, Disney has announced that it’s moving Wandavision, one of its planned 2021 Marvel shows, into 2020, giving it two Marvel releases scheduled for this year. Some users might cancel now that they’re done with The Mandalorian. But if Disney can keep the original shows trickling out — or at least provide some comforting nostalgia in the meantime— it might have a better chance of keeping customers addicted than even Netflix’s famous binge-watching model.