Being able to binge television shows is not as much of a modern convenience as you might think. Prior to widely available streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), there was TiVo, introduced in 1999. That technology evolved rather quickly into widely-available DVR service.
But prior to TiVo, even, television shows were available as box sets on DVD, or VHS. And VCR technology allowed for live recording as well. Tapes could be saved up to watch at once, then traded or sold for the same purpose. If there was a show you hadn’t seen, there were ways to find it and watch it in rapid succession, fast-forwarding through commercials.
Certainly it was less desirable than today, in terms of quantity (not all shows were released or saved at the time) and quality (just try to watch a television episode recorded on a VCR today, and be prepared to fall back into a world where “try adjusting the tracking” is a regular expression.) But there’s a major difference between buying the complete Star Trek: The Next Generation collection on DVD and what Netflix’s model is for releasing original content.
Netflix produces its shows knowing that the release is going to be in one block. As such, many of its shows are serialized, with one episode leading right into the next. The broadcast medium and schedule are baked into the production of the program. Of course, there’s always quite a build whenever one of Netflix’s major shows is about to drop. Back in February of 2014, there was a major push for Netflix to release season 2 of House of Cards a day early, due to a major snowstorm blanketing the northeast.
— Cortland Gatliff (@cortgatliff) February 13, 2014
— April Simpkins (@AprilSimpkins) February 13, 2014
— Phil Lasser (@plasser) February 13, 2014
(Netflix did not cave in to the pressure.)
The binge model works perfectly for capturing viewers on a snow day, or a long weekend. “Binging” has become a favorite pastime of many people, on shows both old and new. And subscriptions increase in the immediate aftermath of their tentpole releases, including 4 million back in 2014 for that House of Cards premiere. For services like Netflix, that’s the goal.
But is Netflix actually shortchanging themselves when it comes to their original content? Could they actually be losing out on a potentially larger spotlight? To answer that, it’s important to think about what makes television special. (Stick with me here.)
Pick any massively popular current series. Let’s say, Game of Thrones. When GoT is in season, on Sunday nights, people are holding watch parties. They’re live-tweeting episodes. They’re writing reviews and recaps, or rushing out to read them. It’s appointment viewing and it’s a shared experience. The water cooler is now more likely Slack or Lync, but people still have to kill time at work talking about something.
Whereas for Netflix, aside from that one glorious premiere weekend, there’s nothing scheduled. People watch the show at different paces, at different times. Some might rush through it in one sitting, anxious to talk about it with someone, anyone. Others have, like, stuff to do on the weekend, so they might not have even started it, knowing that it’s all going to be there whenever they have a spare hour or two to catch up.
It’s even changed the way these shows are written about. The A.V. Club, for instance, covered the recent release of the Gilmore Girls revival in three ways: with an initial overall review, a binge-friendly rapid-fire episodic review, and then more in-depth reviews that went up over the course of last week. They’re forced to cover it that way because everyone’s watching it differently.
Now, that’s not the worst thing in the world for the consumer. There are inherent negatives, including the fact that the model does encourage very specific types of storytelling and structure. Individual episodes of shows can bleed into each other. You might remember some of the cooler moments from, say, Narcos, but it’s difficult to pick out a single episode. They straddle a delicate balance between TV and film, and while that can make for some awesome entertainment, it can also feel homogenized. At times, it can even turn things into a slog, if the overall storyline isn’t strong enough.
Amazon doesn’t do this. When their Top Gear 2.0 show The Grand Tour dropped a few weeks ago, there was a record number of subscriptions for Amazon Prime. (It did coincide with a special discounted offer, and Amazon Prime does offer more perks than a basic Netflix subscription, but still.) But that was just for the premiere episode. As Amazon releases their original shows on an episodic, weekly basis, they can still continue to generate buzz and reviews for the coming weeks.
This is a strategy that dates back to their original forays into the world of original streaming content. Here’s an Entertainment Weekly story from three years ago, as Amazon was preparing to release their first series, Alpha House:
Why stretch out distribution in this manner? “Releasing all episodes at once delays launch and doesn’t allow customers to binge view any sooner,” Amazon Studios head Roy Price explains to EW via email. “Also, it makes it hard to talk about a show with your friends because you never know how many episodes they’ve watched – and that’s part of the fun of a TV show. On the latter point, at first it was a hunch but then we confirmed it by looking at social conversation on Twitter and Facebook: shows that are binge-released tend to have unusually rapid, sometimes precipitous declines in public conversation.”
Now, Alpha House was canceled after just two seasons, but Amazon has found its footing elsewhere, even racking up a few Emmy wins thanks to shows like Transparent. Netflix is obviously doing just fine as well, and if pressed, their response would likely be a slight spin on “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Plus, binge-watching is now essentially synonymous with Netflix. They might very well be locked in for the long-term.
That said, there’s still a chance they’re leaving money on the table with the current model.
We may never know.