‘Mother of God!’
Such is the exclamation made by many a Line of Duty fan when they realise that they will have to wait an entire week to see how the latest cliffhanger is resolved. What kind of medieval torture is it to make the audience wait when streaming technology could allow them to watch the next episode straight away and binge to their hearts’ content? Why do some streaming services drop shows as entire boxsets while others release episodes weekly?
Of course, it used to be that the viewer had no choice at all. The only way to experience brand new TV was weekly, as broadcast. If you wanted to binge-watch an entire series you had to wait until the last episode had been broadcast for the whole run to be available to stream or, before streaming, to buy the DVD boxset.
Binge watching evolved from the DVD boxset to the streaming boxset with the advent of Netflix. Viewing data revealed to the company that people would watch episode after episode of the same show. So when Netflix launched their first original series with House of Cards in February 2013, they gambled on the unconventional strategy of releasing all episodes of the first season at once. Being able to watch the next episode straight away was addictive and was a success for the company.
At first, Netflix appeared to be the exception in dropping entire boxsets at once. Amazon’s early comedy series – Betas, Alpha House and Transparent – were all released weekly in 2013/14. But when their first drama series (Bosch) arrived in 2015, Amazon had seen the success of Netflix’s model and switched to the boxset method. It seemed that instant gratification was what viewers wanted.
The steady rise of the boxset seemed assured. Even broadcasters like the BBC were making the boxset of an entire series available to view online as soon as the first episode had aired. To the extent that, by 2020, the majority of drama series on the BBC were released straight to boxset.
But this seemingly inexorable tide began to shift as the major Hollywood studios launched their own streaming services. As new services, Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+ and Apple TV+ would only have a handful of new shows at launch. Instead of dropping a boxset which people could binge during their free trial, these services turned back to the idea of releasing episodes weekly. Now, to watch a 10-episode series as each episode dropped, a customer would need to pay for 3 months’ worth of subscription fees. A little original content could be stretched a long way.
The biggest of these new streaming services was Disney+. With mega-budget shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision based on movie franchises, Disney had content with instant name recognition and a fully-formed fanbase before anyone had seen a single episode. The ensuing attention would have been stratospheric if these shows had dropped as boxsets. But a one-time hit of publicity that fades away after a couple of weeks isn’t enough for a new service that needs to build a customer base fast. Weekly episodes brought free online publicity week after week. Even if you had zero interest in Star Wars, it became impossible to avoid ‘Baby Yoda’ memes on social media.
Another major factor in the shift towards weekly releases was the pandemic, which saw production shut down for extended periods. This led to a slowdown of new content. Suddenly it was useful for services to stretch out limited content over several weeks per series. This, combined with the example of Disney’s success, saw Amazon move back to weekly releases for season 2 of The Boys, followed by The Expanse and Invincible. Only Netflix seemed relatively unaffected as they produced such a vast amount of content that they already had enough in the bag to make it through 2020 without changing their release strategy.
But some of the factors which meant streaming services benefited from releasing new content weekly are temporary. As the pandemic eases, production will soon ramp up to high levels. The newer streaming services will no longer have to string out a handful of shows but will begin to build a catalogue of new and returning series. As the marketplace gets more crowded, it will be easier to focus a burst of publicity on a boxset dropping on a particular date, rather than seeing interest in a middling show fade over several weeks as newer shows grab the limelight. The weekly treatment will be most effectively used on the blockbuster shows which hoover up publicity and dominate the cultural conversation.
Not every show is The Mandalorian with guaranteed publicity and a pre-formed fanbase. The likes of Big Sky and Solar Opposites on Disney+’s ‘Star’ don’t get significant attention by being shown weekly. If a show doesn’t make a strong impression in the first week, chances are many viewers will have drifted away by the following week. But they’re more likely to continue watching an average-quality show if the next episode is immediately available as part of a boxset.
So the pendulum may swing back towards boxsets as the amount of fresh content increases and the competition between streaming services intensifies. Most shows, which don’t attract intense buzz, are likely to be released as boxsets and keep customers engaged by having the next episode ready for them to binge. Balanced against this, the biggest most talked-about shows will benefit the streaming services which carry them by being released weekly and keeping the conversation going.
Broadcasters, too, have been reawakened to the power of generating conversation through weekly storytelling. As Line of Duty ramps up the tension each week, with the current series pulling in its highest ratings yet, audiences are likely to be thrilled and tortured by cliffhangers for years to come.
‘Now we’re sucking diesel.’
Contributed by Daryl Millar.