When Netflix started Beyoncéing its TV shows (releasing entire seasons at once, often with little or no warning), the streaming service reinvented how people consume TV. As Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos explained it in 2016, TV viewers were already moving away from an “appointment TV” model and toward saving up DVR’d episodes for binge viewing, so the service tried to keep up with the ways its customers wanted to consume content.
In subsequent years, streaming subscribers became accustomed to binging shows. But powerhouses like Disney, Apple, and Hulu are looking to change the game again by taking the opposite strategy with their streaming services. If Netflix turned patience into a forgotten virtue, its competitors are trying to bring it back.
At Disney’s biannual D23 Expo executives revealed that episodes on the upcoming Disney+ streaming service will follow a weekly release schedule. A show like the Marvel Cinematic Universe spinoff Loki, which is slated to run approximately six hours (likely meaning six episodes total) will come out over the course of six weeks. That’s similar to the way Hulu (which is also owned by Disney), Amazon, and HBO Now operate.
But while HBO Now doesn’t have streaming exclusives and is tied into HBO’s weekly release schedule, Disney and Hulu aren’t tied to traditional network schedules. They’ve voluntarily chosen to release most episodes on a week-to-week basis. (Hulu often releases three episodes at once to kick off a season, then drops to one per week afterward.) Apple is reportedly planning to take the same route when its streaming service, Apple TV Plus, launches this fall.
The weekly release model is a smart move for Disney — and potentially any new streaming service that’s initially focused on building a subscriber base, rather than servicing a demanding, preexisting one. Tying new content to beloved franchises, then doling it out a bit at a time is a way for Disney, in particular, to keep subscribers hooked. When Disney+ launches, people who want to watch all of Jon Favreau’s Star Wars series, The Mandalorian, will need to keep their subscriptions active for at least a couple of months. While cord-cutters routinely look for ways to dip in and out of new services, bingeing the content they care about, Disney is looking to keep its initial subscribers stable while adding more throughout the year. The strategy is crucial for Disney to reach its estimated goal of around 10 million customers by the end of 2020.
But the weekly release model isn’t just business. Netflix’s decision to release its shows by the season instead of by the episode helped change television culture. It conditioned viewers to believe that streaming must be equivalent to immediacy. Those bingeing habits have created a cultural disturbance, with new etiquette rules forming online in an effort to respect other people’s viewing schedules. People argue endlessly about the spoiler etiquette on popular shows like Stranger Things, where many viewers will have watched the entire season within the first day of release, while others only have the time to experience it gradually.
Netflix has the freedom to release entire seasons at a time because of its continuous waterfall of content. It has licensed content to fall back on (though not as much as it used to) if people want to just throw on some comfort TV, but it’s also increased its content development budget by more than $10 billion over the last few years to keep a steady stream of material coming to its binge-trained consumers.
HBO, Hulu, Amazon, and Disney don’t have that luxury. Disney is launching with significantly less content than Netflix — a point CEO Bob Iger has made multiple times on calls with investors. It doesn't need as much content, though. Disney isn’t in the game of ordering hundreds of shows or movies every year to plump up its offerings; it’s relying on a play that resembles HBO’s model rather than Netflix’s.
“Our job is hard, but it’s not as hard, because our content strategy is about quality, not quantity,” Michael Paull, president of streaming services at Disney, told The Verge at D23. “Our content’s about curation.”
Disney wants each of its shows to make a cultural impact and for people to talk about them week after week. It’s similar to what Hulu hoped to accomplish with original series like Castle Rock and The Handmaid’s Tale. Amazon went with a similar approach to its shows, like The Grand Tour and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and it’s what Apple plans to do with series like The Morning Show. These are expensive shows, and their parent companies want people to discuss them endlessly, not whisk through them and go looking for the next thing immediately.
Bringing the water cooler effect back to streaming television helps companies get more impact and attention. While viewers talked about each new episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones for a week or more while it was on the air, the new season of Netflix’s hit Stranger Things seems to have come and gone in a flash. Researchers have long suggested that people who binge-watch a show are also more likely to forget what happens than those who space out their viewing time. Bingers are more likely to experience the euphoric highs, as psychologists have discovered, but they also move past a show more quickly once they’re done watching it.
The most ironic thing coming out of the streaming wars is a throwback to what made TV feel like a shared pastime between the 1950s and the pre-Netflix days: waiting, celebrating, and commiserating together. Adam Chitwood at Collider said it best:
As someone who pines for the days when we could hit the internet after each episode of Lost and speculate wildly with no worry about spoiling the episode for people, or grieve with friends over that shocking episode of ER the night before, I am very much in favor of Disney+ releasing episodes weekly.