Same Streaming Time, Same Streaming Service
February 1, 2013 was a watershed moment for television. That was the day Netflix debuted House of Cards, its first original series, a melodramatic look at Washington politics. With a cast that included Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and a pilot directed by David Fincher, the show had a lot of pedigree on its side already. But what got the attention of millions of viewers wasn’t the content of the show itself; it was how Netflix delivered that content.
Instead of releasing one episode a week like a network or cable show, Netflix dropped all 13 episodes at once. And thus, “binge-watching” was born.
Today’s viewers don’t bat an eye at sitting down and watching multiple episodes of a show at a time. But just six years ago, the act of binge-watching on your own time instead of being tethered to a cable marathon or having to own or rent a DVD set was revolutionary. Soon, other streaming services started releasing their own content all at once, just like Netflix.
But after six years, it seems there’s a sea change—or stream change–away from binge-watching and back to a weekly model. And that’s mostly because of social media.
Enter the ridiculously meme-able The Mandalorian, available to stream on Disney+. After the streaming service launched in November, an episode of the Star Wars spinoff released every Friday morning, and screencaps from that episode then went on to dominate the internet for the weekend. Part of Disney+’s subscriber retention strategy seems to be to dole out episodes every week. The service did the same with Encore!, a reality show about theater kids reuniting, and with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. This strategy, combined with Disney’s pricing bundle with ESPN+ and Hulu, harkens back to ye olde days of cable TV and cable bundles, thus trafficking in the same nostalgia Disney has always deployed.
Speaking of Hulu, that service has always spaced out its episodes, partly because it still had to account for ad breaks for all of the shows they streamed. With shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Path, Hulu carved out a spot for its originals every week, which it continued with shows like Castle Rock. This presents a viewer with the best of both worlds. Unlike shows that Hulu licenses, the originals aren’t in danger of leaving the service any time soon, so if a viewer misses one week, they can catch up in a binge-watch. If they want to watch week by week, that’s easy to do, too.
Then there’s Apple TV+, which is going to a weekly release schedule; Shudder, which dropped an episode of its Creepshow revival once a week; and even Netflix, which releases select shows like Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj weekly.
Anecdotes aren’t data, but if social media is any metric of success, it seems many people enjoy having time to just watch one episode and talk about it, instead of watching an entire season and then moving on.
Speaking of the Witcher, you know what's been hella nice?
Because The Mandalorian has been coming out on a weekly basis, I haven't had to cram an entire series into one viewing to avoid spoilers.
And I've had time to just let single episodes settle in my mind.
— 🖤🩸 𝔅𝔩𝔞𝔠𝔨 𝔐𝔢𝔱𝔞𝔩 𝔅𝔞𝔯𝔟𝔦𝔢 🩸🖤 (@EspiKvlt) December 20, 2019
It was more about what they did with the twists. It's great for a couple other reasons. Regina King is an awesome lead, and it was extremely well thought out from start to finish.
We mostly discussed how shows should go back to weekly viewing rather than binging them all at once
— Damian Michael Movies (@damimovies) December 17, 2019
We remember more per episode when we don’t binge-watch, too. One peer-reviewed study from 2017 showed that binge-watchers retain less information about shows than people who watch week-to-week, and enjoyed the shows less as well.
That strategy seems to be working, at least for Disney. Streaming services are notorious for refusing to release concrete viewership numbers, but a recent estimate had The Mandalorian at 40 million “demand expressions”—aggregated social media, photo sharing, streaming and blogging data that is then fed into an algorithm to arrive at a quantifiable number—in its first week of release. That’s fewer than Stranger Things, but still a good start for a new streaming service.
Meanwhile, HBO has had this strategy down cold for years. Every Sunday night, the cable network has dominated social media feeds with viewer reactions to Righteous Gemstones, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, True Detective, and, most recently, Watchmen. While all of those shows are great in their own right, it’s safe to say social media, and the breathing room that a week between episodes allows, has contributed to this shift away from the binge-watch.
After all, what is social media if not the latest iteration of the water cooler, were we all gather to discuss what happened on TV last night? And with the breakneck speed of how Twitter and other social networks process entertainment (Netflix released The Irishman at the end of November and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a big conversation about it online), it behooves streaming services to stretch out their relevance as much as possible.
As 2020 gears up, I expect more streaming services to move to a weekly model, especially if those services are new (Apple TV+, the upcoming Peacock) or old. Disney+ has a long way to go to unseat Netflix, but it’s trying its hardest. With The Mandalorian and other shows like it, it might just bring back an old way of watching TV.