Satisfaction or Suspense: The Future of Streaming
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The New Times – Source
To binge, or to pace yourself? It’s a question that has unexpectedly troubled television executives since Netflix, parent of all subsequent streaming platforms, started releasing entire seasons of their own original content at once back in 2012. As other streaming services emerged onto Rokus and app stores, and as cable lost more and more of its relevance, the great streaming wars began. Companies riding Netflix’s wave of success have often tried their best to find the holes in the original streaming giant’s armor, looking for ways to make their own original content stand out. However, in the last year especially, platforms like Hulu and HBO Max have employed an interesting method when it comes to releasing their own content, drawn ironically from the cable television world that they helped to conquer: the traditional weekly episodic model.
Netflix’s strategy to releasing their content in bingeable drops was something extremely new at the time it started trying it out, but the novelty of this idea ended up working very well for the platform. The first television show to ever receive this treatment was one of Netflix’s very first original shows, House of Cards, and its overwhelming success helped champion Netflix forward as the future of entertainment. Netflix clearly understood not only the exciting appeal of the “TV binge” —younger Netflix users were immediately enticed by this new ability to skip the wait and just gorge on content in one satisfying feast—but also its creative potential. Because viewers of the first season of House of Cards could flow from one episode to the next at the click of a button, the plot threads of each episode would automatically be fresher in their minds than if they had to wait an entire week before installments; television presented in this manner had potential to become more intricate and advanced.
The resulting darkly complicated plotlines from House of Cards proved swiftly addicting to millions upon millions of Netflix’s subscribers. The first season’s official Rotten Tomatoes critic consensus reads that House of Cards was not only a “slick, engrossing drama”, but also that the series could “redefine how television is produced”. And redefine it did. Netflix’s innovative move ushered in what many called a new ‘Golden Age of Television’: television was able to mature, complexify, and become more addictively watchable in a way it never had been before. Even the quality of cable television increased as it tried its best to compete. This risky gambit from Netflix created a whole new world of media consumption, one where this once-struggling DVD rental business was totally on top.
Now, almost ten years later, Netflix still remains the most powerful of the resulting multitude of production companies. But within the last year, other services have begun trying their hand at the old ‘weekly episode drop’, a technique that most streamed shows thought to have been left behind with cable. Disney+'s The Mandalorian—a Star Wars TV series infamous for its introduction of ‘Baby Yoda’ into the world—surprised fans by dropping each installment on the platform in weekly interludes, shows like WandaVision and Hawkeye doing the same. As other companies followed suit, interested in any approach different from their common enemy of Netflix, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building and Apple TV’s Ted Lasso quickly joined the ranks of weekly television.
It’s not certain whether this interesting maneuver is something that will actually threaten Netflix’s staying power. But the fears that it will turn away viewers used to instant gratification have proven largely false. With each week that a coveted half hour of content from WandaVision was released, hordes of fans swarmed onto Disney+ in such numbers that the entire platform crashed at least twice. Speculations and theories about the show spread feverishly across the Internet, the prolonged wait times between episodes allowing WandaVision more time to make a mark on pop culture. HBO’s risky choice to parcel out chunks of its hit drama-comedy Succession ended up paying off hugely for the company; cliffhangers between installments didn’t just prompt a click of “Next Episode” but rather encouraged a delicious urgency that sparked thousands of discussions on social media (and in turn, many bewildered Twitter users who were not aware that this many people watched that one business show with Macaulay Culkin’s brother).
One of the most impactful recent examples of finding success through this format is the likewise HBO teen drama Euphoria. If episodes of Succession made waves on the internet, each anticipated dose of content from Euphoria incites flash floods, seemingly overtaking half of the entire Twitter platform every Sunday night after its release. Tweets about a single frame from an episode can rack up to 30,000 likes within a few hours, and within those few hours of a Euphoria release no corner of the internet is safe. From memes to references to jokes about “Euphoria High”, Euphoria’s weekly release model has ensured it’s reached the awareness of what feels like everyone on the internet.
In contrast, in the last week of January Netflix’s acclaimed crime drama Ozark updated with seven new episodes dropped all at once. This release was highly anticipated, but unlike Euphoria, there’s barely been a whisper about it online. While still successful, Netflix’s release model, often called the ‘future of entertainment’ during its beginnings, somewhat fails to take full advantages of one of the biggest tools of the future: the internet.
This isn’t all to say that one streaming model is better than the other. Netflix shows like Stranger Things and Squid Game have entered the cultural zeitgeist just as easily as anything on HBO or Hulu. Notably, though, Netflix is choosing to release the aforementioned season of Ozark in two chunks—the next seven episodes of this final season will drop in mid-April. This unconventional lean away from Netflix’s business-as-usual probably doesn’t mean they’ll break from their routine completely, but one thing is for sure: the streaming wars aren’t going anywhere.