In the old days, TV episodes came out once a week. Dying to know what happens next on your favorite show? Too bad. You’ll have to be patient. Have other plans while the latest episode airs? Better hope you remembered to set your VCR, or pray that the next rerun isn’t too far away. It was the age of the dreaded cliffhanger, and studios kept us all on their schedules.
Netflix and other on-demand streaming services changed all that. Suddenly, full seasons of exciting new shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Stranger Things dropped all at once. No need to wait. Sit down and watch the whole season — or even the whole series — in one sleepless, snack-ridden, why-the-hell-did-I-do-this evening.
Binge-watching became a hallmark of the streaming era, but not everyone is playing along. While Netflix has made binging TV an American pastime, services like HBO, Hulu, and the upcoming Disney+ choose to release episodes of at least some of their original series on a once-a-week schedule. You can binge a show when the season is over, but if you’re planning on staying up-to-date on The Mandalorian, Watchmen, or The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re going to have to endure a lot of downtime between episodes.
While that may seem a little old fashioned, for streamers who want to compete with Netflix’s seemingly endless library of titles, it’s never been more practical.
The watercooler effect
A staggered release schedule may not be great for those who prefer the freedom to watch their favorite shows on their own schedule, but it’s a great way for the ever-growing collection of video streamers to generate buzz, press, and most importantly, money. When a full season of a show hits Netflix at once, the season itself is the draw — but it doesn’t last long. When episodes are spaced out over a few months, each installment can become its own major event.
For proof, look no further than HBO’s mega-hit Game of Thrones. Whether you liked the finale or not, you can’t deny that Game of Thrones‘ final season was a pop culture sensation throughout its run. For six weeks, we spent every Sunday night glued to HBO in one of its multiple iterations.
On Monday mornings, we’d ramble excitedly or grumble dejectedly about the latest goings-on in Westeros with friends and co-workers. We’d catch up on the latest fan theories on sites like Digital Trends. And all of this fed the hype, ratcheting up anticipation. By the next Sunday, we couldn’t wait to tune in, and the process would start all over again.
Staggered releases help facilitate discussion, which generates buzz, which leads to more subscriptions and more ratings. Searches on how to cancel HBO spiked after the Game of Thrones’ finale, sure, but nobody was going to unsubscribe before the series ended. You couldn’t. Game of Thrones was practically the only show anyone was talking about. We could all speculate on what would happen during The Battle of Winterfell, because everyone was on the same schedule; we were all on the same page.
While Netflix shows like Stranger Things and GLOW generate plenty of discussion, everyone watches at different rates. You can’t share memes or talk about plot twists because you might spoil something. Just as importantly for studio execs, the zeitgeist moment for these shows is extremely limited.
We could all speculate on what would happen during The Battle of Winterfell, because everyone was on the same schedule.
For a few weeks leading up to the season premiere, there’s a flurry of press and speculation. The show drops, usually on a Friday. People binge the series over the weekend, social media goes wild for a day or two, and critics publish their roundups as fast as they can. Then, life moves on. A week or two later, everyone’s talking about something else.
Game of Thrones was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Other shows, even ones with built-in fanbases like The Mandalorian, won’t likely be as popular. Even HBO’s Thrones prequels will have trouble capturing the same magic. Still, streaming services have learned a lot from Thrones‘ example. In order to retain subscribers, services need to keep them interested. Unless there’s a flood of content on the way, a staggered release schedule is the best way to do so.
It’s all about content
Of course, Netflix does have a flood of content, and that’s why it can drop entire seasons on a single day. There’s always something to watch next, and Netflix is all too happy to telegraph it across your screen when you log in.
Netflix is very good at pushing a never-ending stream of shows and movies to subscribers. It should be. The streaming giant is expected to spend about $15 billion on original programming in 2019, and a new season of a high-profile Netflix show arrives almost every week. In August 2019 alone, new seasons of Dear White People, GLOW, Mindhunter, 13 Reasons Why, Power, and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance hit the service, in addition to a full slate of Netflix-produced films, documentaries, and comedy specials.
Netflix doesn’t just have a show for everybody. It has multiple shows for everybody, and new seasons are arriving all the time. Other services don’t have that luxury.
Sure, Disney+ has all kinds of Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe projects in the works, but only The Mandalorian will be available at launch. The Rogue One prequel series and Obi-Wan miniseries haven’t even started filming yet. Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Disney+’s first MCU series currently scheduled for release, is still a year away.
HBO is in a similar situation. While the premium network produces many original series, it tends to save its biggest shows for Sunday nights, so it can only air one or two at a time. As Game of Thrones and past hits like The Sopranos show, it’s a winning strategy. Right now, Succession is a social media darling. Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen arrives this fall. His Dark Materials should debut before the end of the year, with its own built-in audience from the novels.
While Netflix can afford to drop a full season of a show and move on, everyone else needs to be stingy with their original series.
Netflix, Disney+, HBO, and other streaming services are bigger than just their original programming. They have deep catalogs full of material which would take years, if not a lifetime, to get through. But original series generate the buzz. They win the Emmys. They generate the big revenue. If a streaming service wants to be part of the conversation, it needs homegrown hits.
While Netflix can afford to drop a full season of a show and move on, everyone else needs to be stingy with their original series if they want to keep people talking and, more importantly, paying. Sure, maybe viewers will check out a movie or two while they’re waiting, but it’s the original series that keep them coming back for more.
Disney+, HBO and others understand this. For better or worse when it comes to us, the viewers, they’re going to keep milking those shows for all they’re worth.
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