As a change of pace from our regular types of articles, in this one I want to look at the methods of content consumption and how that has adapted with the advent of streaming services. No wasting time, let’s just get to it and answer the question of if bingeing TV shows is the way forward.
State of Play B.S. (Before Streaming)
Before streaming, there wasn’t a choice. We watched episodes weekly or, if we wanted to binge, we’d do so until our DVR got all the episodes or there was a DVD release out. It wasn’t too fussy and nobody seemed to mind; it gave birth to the concept of “watercooler talk” which, in light of COVID-19, is probably a relic of a time gone by. Much like watercooler talk, however, is the idea of a demographic all sitting down once per week to watch something and then going to the message boards and/or Reddit to discuss what happened. Each week, there’d be a promo for the next episode airing sometime between the episodes and, at the start of each episode, a nice recap of key moments from both the episode before and the series at large would help clue people in to what they should look out for this week. No complaints there. Let’s look at why that model worked for everyone involved.
For the networks, it meant they could create prime advertising spots which brands would understandably fork out hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in order to get their 30-seconds in heaven. That, of course, meant extra money for a show.
For the showrunners, it kept the conversation in the minds of the people watching, which is why you’ll often see shows dragging things out to get to a cliffhanger, and then some.
For the audience, it helped build anticipation. Though, perhaps this was to the detriment of the story itself.
Also, please note that I am talking almost exclusively about US shows. UK shows are generally really inconsistent with their airings; they’re more about just getting the show out there and that’s why you’ll often see shows premiering weekly on BBC whilst the whole season debuts on BBC iPlayer.
Back to the point; that model of releasing everything weekly also had the added benefit of keeping people subscribed to a certain channel. Now, most shows in the US are FTA after installing a cable package, somewhat of a necessity anyway, but for networks like HBO and STARZ, they’re “premium” add-ons which cost a pretty penny, that retention of subscribers is essential. Granted, those channels generally do not run third-party commercials, but the key here is in how far the subscriber fee goes in offsetting the need to run adverts in the first place. The answer: pretty far.
You might ask: what does binge watching have to do with commercials? To that I say, it all speaks to a larger issue of content consumption versus watching a full story as intended by the showrunner. Networks placed consumption first, so every decision they made over the distribution of a show was in the wake of maximising the revenue they’d take in from that show. Streaming services, on the other hand, they’re more focused on letting the viewer get the story as intended by the storyteller. That’s why you’ll see such a disparity in season lengths both between network shows and streaming services and between shows that exist on streaming services. Where the former has got anything from 20 to 26 episodes in a standard season to help pad out the runtime and reach that 100 episode syndication milestone, a streaming service show is generally a shorter season. Anything from 4 episodes to 10, these shows are a quick watch, which I think is part of the reason the binge model has become so accepted as the MO for streaming services.
A Kick Up the A.S. (After Streaming)
Without digging too deeply into the mechanics of how Netflix makes its shows, the way in which those shows are presented is an interesting starting point. Since its foray into original productions, it has become a generally understood practice that streaming shows will release all their episodes weekly. This has some caveats, such as if a show has exclusive distribution rights, meaning it airs weekly fewer than 24 hours after the home airing. But, generally, all episodes drop all at once. And that works. To some degree.
I can’t help but feeling that this move was made to be disruptive rather than inherently consumer-forward; if Netflix wanted to convince people to abandon their cable packages and watch full seasons of everything they could always watch on reruns, for example, it stood to reason that their own original productions should drop weekly. After all, the delay in getting the newest season of a show out and in full on Netflix was no fault of the streamer’s, it was the fault of the home-network. If you want to even call it that.
It’s clear Netflix saw their model of “subscribers pay and get the “best” experience” as the panacea to all of the woes that led to the culture of cord-cutters. That said, in doing this, did they sacrifice the aspects of entertainment that bring people together? Those water-cooler moments, they were gone for a number of reasons: you either saw the whole season, or you were at a place in a show that is completely different to everyone else’s. Whilst, sure, the creation of artificial anticipation was a definite drawback to network shows, there is something to be said about what I’m coining “Binger’s Remorse”: the idea that, after bingeing a show, someone feels dissatisfied because they should’ve just exercised some self-restraint.
If we agree that 24 episodes spread out over 24 weeks is a non-starter, and bingeing a whole season all at once just leads to the inevitable slow decline of interest, how, then, do we go about fixing this?
Solution 1: 3 Then Weekly
I really thought that AppleTV Plus was onto something when it split up its premiere seasons into two methods of distribution: all at once, for shows it thought would suit a younger audience; and the famed “3 Then Weekly”, wherein the first 3 episodes of a season would premiere on the drop date, with each subsequent episode being released weekly. As we’ve seen from their second season premieres of shows, they seemed to abandon that strategy, but let me tell you why I think it was a great one: it gave the audience more to chew on whilst setting up the season-long arc that we’d have to tune into. The only real drawback is that it could compel the service to intervene and stymie some organic creative developments within the season.
Solution 2: Batch Drops
Similar to Season 4 of HBO Max’s Search Party, this method would arbitrarily draw boundaries between the episodes and release them in batches every week. Using that same example, it went 3-3-4 for a total of 10 episodes in Season 4. Whilst there isn’t anything inherently bad with this, I think it could be better structured, which is why I’m also proposing…
Solution 3: A 3-Act Structure
Unless it’s a positively Shakespearean work, most things are divided into three acts: the introduction/build up, the climax, the resolution/coda. It may well suit these services to adopt this when considering a batch drop of episodes because it also helps the audience understand some of the narrative choices made by the show-runner. That said, drawing these boundaries verges into being somewhat restrictive by formalising the process.
Solution 4: Every Day
This is quite ~radical~ one if I do say so myself, but having the new episodes of a show premiere every day for however long it takes keeps the conversation going and also satiates the impatient of us. It wouldn’t have to be every everyday, for example, it could be that for a 10 episode season, the episodes are released Monday-Friday for 2 weeks, with the weekend acting as an default omnibus for those who prefer to binge it/haven’t had a chance to catch up. Sure, you may lose some of the hype by not drawing it out for a month, but you retain a lot of the discussion around a show by giving people that weekend buffer to just find their feet.
As to what I think? I lean more towards the first and last ones, but let me know where you land! Do you prefer bingeing, weekly releases, or a hybrid model? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter, where you can find me (@StreamingBuffer) and Josh (@JoshM_Jones).
Stay tuned over the next couple of days for news about our giveaway; you don’t want to miss this one at all.
Until then, happy streaming!