Tech vs. Media: Which TV Streaming Strategy Is Better?
Last weekend at Disney’s D23 Expo, the company confirmed that its forthcoming Disney Plus streaming service will release episodes of original series on a weekly schedule, “ditching” the binge-watching model of Netflix, as some put it.
Rich Greenfield, a veteran media analyst, noted that the release strategy of current and forthcoming streaming platforms seems to be split squarely across “tech platforms” following bingeable schedules and “legacy media” companies releasing episodes of their original content on a week-to-week basis, as they traditionally had.
Greenfield and others on Twitter positioned this divergence of strategies as “consumer first vs. business model first.” They posited that releasing every episode of a TV season at the same time, allowing viewers to watch them on their own schedule, is a better consumer experience, while a weekly release schedule, which requires viewers to sustain their subscriptions to watch the same show over months, is a better corporate business model.
This framing was undoubtedly informed by Netflix’s early posturing of releasing entire seasons at once as more satisfactory for consumers compared to the “managed dissatisfaction” of traditional TV seasons. Back in 2013, chief content officer Ted Sarandos commented in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
During another interview three years later, Sarandos doubled-down on the superiority of bingeable TV seasons:
“…there’s no reason to release it weekly. The move away from appointment television is enormous. So why are you going to drag people back to something they’re abandoning in huge numbers?”
It’s true that Netflix has prospered and disrupted legacy media companies with the bingeable model that it pioneered with its original series, House of Cards in 2013. It was a completely novel experience for consumers to have access to an entire season of a TV show at the same time. Instead of watching a show across months, viewers could watch an entire new season in a week (or a weekend!) if they so desired.
But perhaps the enjoyment of this novelty overlooked the merits of traditional weekly TV schedules. Is it possible that weekly episodes aren’t just a better business model, but can also foster a better viewing experience for consumers as well?
Appointment viewing, “watercooler” discussions, and community
Before Netflix, Hulu, DVR, and TiVo, the only way to watch TV shows was live, on a weekly schedule. If you happened to miss an episode one week, there was no way to catch-up unless you recorded it on your VCR or happened to catch it in syndication years later. DVDs and electronic sell-through (EST, e.g. buying episodes on iTunes) would eventually present an alternative, albeit at a much higher cost to already high cable bills. “Appointment viewing” was therefore the default for watching TV — and it was more of a hostage situation than a choice that consumers could actively make.
The streaming world of 2019 and beyond is very different than the broadcast TV era. If you don’t watch an episode of a show on HBO, Hulu, or Showtime (and soon to be Disney Plus) immediately, it’s still there, waiting for you when you’re ready. Some viewers let an entire season become available over months before choosing to binge-watch it, as they do with Netflix series. Others choose to participate in the advantages of a weekly release schedule, particularly for heavily serialized dramas.
Let’s look at HBO for example. If you’re a fan of an HBO series, your Sunday night is likely reserved to watch the newest episode each week. Before, during, and after the episode, people are actively discussing theories, surprises, and hot takes on social media and with their friends.
For some series, fans organize weekly watch parties with their friends and family. Whether it’s Westworld or Bachelor in Paradise doesn’t matter — the weekly schedule is a recurring occasion to gather with loved ones.
In between episodes, there are recaps and reviews to read, fan theories floated and considered, and watercooler discussions with other viewers, both in-person and online. Unlike Game of Thrones, there aren’t fan theories to contemplate for Stranger Things. You just watch the next episode.
The fan experience of a show released weekly goes beyond just viewing the episodes in quick succession. It’s communal, and it lasts longer. Below is a comparison of tweets-per-day for two shows back in 2015: Empire on Fox, which aired weekly and the bingeable Orange is the New Black on Netflix. For OITNB, there’s a short spike of social conversation when a new season is released that quickly dies down, at least partially because fans aren’t on the same viewing schedule.
Of course, tweets don’t equal viewership, and despite a lack of sustained Twitter conversation, Orange is the New Black is the longest-running Netflix original series to date and has been viewed by more people than Empire. But it still isn’t a shared experience. In a time of rising loneliness and isolation, perhaps the community of TV fandom is a positive asset for mental health. Some studies have even linked binge-watching to depression and loneliness.
Familiarity and sustained exposure over time
Although the examples above primarily concern serialized dramatic content, weekly release schedules can also benefit TV comedies. As I’ve written about before (“How Binge-Watching Doomed Comedy”), a key ingredient in TV comedy is a familiarity and relationship with characters that can only be developed through sustained exposure over time. Familiarity allows expectations to be subverted, running gags to land, and affection for characters and their relationships to develop.
Watching Modern Family or The Big Bang Theory over eight months with just a four-month break between seasons means viewers spend most of their year with the characters and comedy and don’t need many refreshers or reminders about characters, plot lines, and running gags. Netflix’s original comedy Friends from College, on the other hand, dropped an eight-episode first season in July of 2017, followed by an eight-episode second season in January of 2019. Even the most ardent fans aren’t going to remember a whole lot from just eight episodes a year and a half earlier.
To be fair, sustained exposure over time can still be achieved in a bingeable model if the volume of content is high (e.g. Friends, The Office) — but Netflix and Amazon aren’t dropping 100+ episodes of new original comedies.
Would you rather wait between episodes or between seasons?
In the traditional broadcast TV era, 22+ episode seasons began airing in September and continued through May, with writing, production, and post-production of later episodes continuing throughout the TV season. Not only could producers potentially adjust storylines or other aspects after gauging fan reaction, but networks could also order additional episodes and subsequent seasons much earlier, meaning that most TV shows were only off the air for three to four months between seasons.
With the bingeable model often comes a longer delay between seasons. Every episode of a season must be shot and edited before being released, and since these platforms rely heavily on viewership data and analytics to make decisions, subsequent seasons often aren’t ordered until a few weeks after the most recent season has been released. Hence, you get a 21-month gap between Stranger Things’ second and third seasons. While this may be sustainable for the biggest bingeable hits, it’s likely that some consumers lose interest in or even forget about a series they had enjoyed two years ago.
Bingeable content as “consumer-first”
There are of course benefits to bingeable content as well. Viewers can achieve instant gratification of watching the next episode after a major cliffhanger instead of having to wait a week or longer for a resolution, which many find annoying. Consumers can also choose to watch a series and cancel their membership in one month, instead of being locked in for the duration of a season.
The bingeable schedule is also fit for today’s consumer attention span and media cycle. As the number of scripted TV series continues to scale upward toward “Peak TV,” releasing entire TV seasons at the same time allows platforms to garner the most attention and concentrate marketing spend upfront, instead of trying to sustain interest over weeks or months. With so many new TV shows launching year-round, it’s easy for any individual show to get lost in the clutter, especially if the premiere episode does not make a cultural splash or reach the zeitgeist.
As Netflix has demonstrated, concentrating the pent-up demand for a popular show and dropping the entire season at once can have blockbuster results. Four days after season three of Stranger Things was released, 18.2 million accounts had already finished the entire season.
To binge, or not to binge? The choice is yours
The bingeable TV pioneered by Netflix was undoubtedly superior to the old-fashioned weekly release schedule of the broadcast TV era, when it wasn’t easy (or necessarily possible) for viewers to find, access, and watch episodes that had already aired. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits to the old-fashioned weekly model.
Today, the choice is in the consumer’s hands. Some HBO and Hulu subscribers wait for an entire season to be released before bingeing on it, while some people and online communities organize scheduled rewatches of series that have every episode available, in order to take advantage of the community and conversation of weekly shared viewing.
Netflix has in fact released a handful of series on a weekly schedule, almost all of which have been of the late-night and interview genres, such as Chelsea, The Break with Michelle Wolf, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, and the first season of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. There’s no doubt that the company has considered releasing at least some high-quality scripted content on a weekly schedule. I suspect, however, that Netflix is afraid that doing so would hurt its brand image and reputation with consumers and fears the backlash if it is perceived as backpedaling from the innovative distribution schedule that they’ve championed all these years.
As more and more exclusive original content is spread across a growing litany of streaming services, “cycling” through subscriptions on a monthly basis will likely be a strategy for a segment of consumers. Savvy viewers may choose to subscribe to a service with bingeable episodes when they are first available, but wait to subscribe to weekly-released seasons of shows until all episodes are available.
Personally, I don’t believe that one distribution schedule is necessarily superior to the other. Both serve their purposes and make for enjoyable viewing experiences. So perhaps as the streaming wars intensify, we’ll see networks increasingly mix-and-match release schedules with the content and fans best served by bingeable availability and weekly appointment viewing.