Genres that run out of steam

27 September, 2023

Image: Bob's Burger, FOX

Often in sports, statistical benchmarks of success will change over time as the game and its athletes evolve, resulting in new strategies and goals. For example, the once-vaunted 300-win mark for starting baseball pitchers has become an increasingly unlikely accomplishment in today's era of baseball talent. Why? Thanks to our improved insight into injuries and player performance, pitchers receive reduced workloads to extend their effectiveness and career. (Apologies to all the aching rotator cuffs of 20th century ballplayers). 

A similar transition has taken hold in the television industry, which once revolved around amassing a mighty 100 episodes for a series to cash in on juicy syndication revenue. But with the rise of streaming, a lessening reliance on advertisers, and greater freedom to experiment, there’s ample evidence that television series have become shorter in the digital age. 

Cost and production logistics play a clear role in the size, scope and ultimate longevity of a TV series. But developing a firm grasp on when various types of shows reach their peak value by examining audience demand over different intervals can help studios and networks better plan content slates. Consider it a helpful hack to content resource allocation. 

Decay Rate, Post Season and Off Season

Just as you can always count on media CEOs providing endless lip service about shareholder value, there’s also a similar consistency when identifying which genres tend to maintain audience interest at the strongest levels over certain spans. 

A post-season decay rate compares demand during the season period, which lasts while new episodes are being released, and an equal period after a finale has aired. Since 2016, the top 50 seasons of TV in terms of the best US post-season decay rates are mostly dominated by dramas (such as Stranger Things or Law & Order: SVU), action and adventure series (such as The Mandalorian or The Witcher), and animated series (such as Bob’s Burgers or My Hero Academia), according to Parrot Analytics, where I work as an industry strategist. (In some instances, the same series boasts multiple seasons among the top 50). Parrot utilizes a combination of consumption data, social media engagement, search queries and more to measure audience demand.

If we then look at overall US post-season audience demand – or how much interest audiences are expressing for a title in the window directly following its finale – among the top 50 seasons of TV since 2016, the majority is yet again dramas, action and adventure series, and animated series. If we extend this to off-season demand, long after a show has completed delivering new episodes but prior to the arrival of a new season, the top 50 is primarily comprised of – you guessed it – TV series that fall in the same three genres. (Of course, if the US government can’t reverse engineer alien technology, what hope does Hollywood have in consistently creating Emmy-winning ratings behemoths). 

What does this mean in practical terms? Even with the upper echelon select sample size, studios, networks and streamers can expect shows in these genres to generally sustain audience interest for a given season longer vs other genres. That can help with content scheduling over the course of a calendar year, which directly connects to retention and churn reducing efforts (there’s a reason HBO tends to deliver a buzzy new series nearly every single quarter). Keeping average revenue per user (ARPU) trending in the right direction means keep paying customers on the hook.


Seasonal Peaks

While the previous section notes that these three genres garner impressive demand holds, that’s still more of a micro snapshot connected more or less to a single season. Looking at the macro, we can better identify when a show hits its peak demand over the course of a multiseason run. 

Seasonal demand peaks in TV are somewhat influenced by the number of seasons a show has. Often, a show will peak in its final season which suggests that it has built viewer interest over time and grown throughout the course of its run (of course, it’s easier to accomplish this if your show only has two seasons). That’s preferred over peaking earlier and providing diminishing returns in subsequent seasons. 

Unfortunately, the action and adventure genres skew closer to the latter as 65% of shows in this lane peak in the US before their concluding seasons since 2016, the highest mark among core genres (which also includes animation, comedy, documentary, drama, and horror). Within that 65%, it’s likely a given action and adventure show will top out sometime within its first three seasons before its demand begins to wane season-over-season. 

So while fans may hyper-engage with a season or two of an action and adventure series both while it’s releasing new episodes and after, viewing interest isn’t necessarily as likely to always stick around for the show’s full run of several seasons. This is partially reflected in Netflix’s own self-reported viewership data as the first season of The Witcher, a fantasy action and adventure series, is the show’s only one to rank among the streamer’s 10 most-watched English series. Yet subsequent seasons or spin offs of other Top 10 shows such as Stranger Things and Bridgerton see new entries outperform debut seasons. This doesn’t mean The Witcher (or shows like it) isn’t hugely popular, but perhaps due to a number of factors does not always boast the same sort of sticky holds as other genres. 

Drama, meanwhile, is more evenly distributed as 50.6% peak prior to the last season. Dramas that do reach peak demand before their conclusions are most likely reach their zenith within the first three seasons. 

A whopping 64% of animated series peak in their final seasons, leading the pack of core genres and providing very impressive sustained interest over time. The majority of animated series that do peak prior to their finals seasons tend to hit the highest mark within the first four seasons. Comedy (54%) follows in terms of hitting a series high in demand in its last season and is also likely to top out in its first four seasons if it isn’t peaking in its final go-around. 

Whew, that was a lot of numbers. In case you’re having PTSD flashbacks to high school calculus, here’s the recap:

In terms of longevity, these genres tend to outpace others, though again it’s partly dependent on the number of seasons. Generally speaking, dramas (think Handmaid’s Tale) and comedies (think Ted Lasso) are often quality acquisition drivers for streamers looking to attract new subscribers. Their tendency to then maintain audiences well over the course of their subsequent runs underscores their complementary retention power (see: FriendsThe OfficeSeinfeld, etc). As costs increase with each passing season for popular series, demand growth is necessary to help offset the added expenses. 


Just as those changing sports benchmarks result in new ways to approach the game, the evolution of TV has provided ample insight into how best to attract and maintain audience interest in an era of sprawling competition for our attention spans. 

This understanding helps to efficiently build a library that equally balances acquisition, retention and engagement over time. Knowing the second season of a hypothetical breakout hit drama will maintain strong interest levels weeks or months after its finale doesn’t eliminate the need for the next release to carry that momentum forward. But it does provide more programming flexibility. 

Content providers can launch the first season of a new prospective tentpole on the back of that successful drama - not dissimilar to broadcast networks using hit shows as helpful lead-ins for new series - and flank it with a long-running animated series that boosts engagement with high usage subscribers. Unlocking these and an endless array of additional effective content combinations ultimately aids content planning and reduces the cost of customer acquisition. 

The ultimate objective remains the same: create popular content that audiences love to watch. But how the industry sets about accomplishing that game is always evolving. 

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