Insights

To Binge or not to Binge: Demand for Streaming Release Strategies

17 June, 2021

Netflix pioneered the binge release model as the the company seemingly made the modern streaming landscape in its own image. No longer would audiences be tied to viewing schedules. The future of streaming would be on-demand in the purest sense of the term - however much content audiences could consume was available wherever and whenever they wanted.

This prevailing view has been increasingly challenged recently. The binge release model is an expensive strategy for streamers to maintain. If audiences are able to burn through content as fast as they want, a streaming platform needs to have another show to keep them engaged as soon as they finish otherwise there is a risk of subscribers churning. On a weekly release schedule, once a viewer is truly hooked they are guaranteed as a subscriber for at least the duration of the show's run.

Additionally, it's not even clear that all-at-once drops of episodes are what audiences want. Netflix's bet on binge releases was premised on viewers wanting immediate availability and the freedom to watch shows at their own pace. But it's not hard to find fans of weekly releases. Living in a binge viewing world has made audiences come to value the once underappreciated benefits of this strategy: a shared experience not possible when we are all watching at our own pace; the genuine build-up and suspense when episodes are parceled out weekly; and time to reflect on, digest, and discuss each episode.

The Expanse, from Amazon Prime Video, is illustrative of the differing approaches to releasing episodes and shows that even an individual series can experiment with different strategies:

Expanse_season_timeshift.png

The third season of The Expanse (orange) was the last to be released on a linear network and dropped episodes weekly in 2018. The show was picked up by Amazon Prime Video which dropped all of season 4 (red) on December 12, 2019. The most recent season (purple) reverted to a weekly release schedule. Comparing the two seasons released on Amazon, the benefits of dropping episodes weekly is apparent. While both the binge and weekly release of the show were similarly in demand in the first month, in week 5 the weekly released season began picking up steam going into the finale. At this point in the binge release model demand for the show continued to fade.

The Expanse is not alone in trying out different release strategies. A number of Amazon originals moved to releasing episodes weekly. When Apple TV+ launched most of its shows followed a weekly release schedule. Dickinson was a notable exception which dropped all its episodes at once. Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet also binge dropped its first season on the platform. Both shows have since switched to a weekly release cadence for their second seasons.

Even Netflix, the binge release architect, has tested the waters of episodic releases. Its original reality series, The Circle, released sets of episodes across several weeks. Currently Netflix is promoting #EliteWeek in the lead up to the release of season 4 of Elite. This week long event has daily releases of sets of episodes called Elite: Short Stories. Clearly Netflix sees value in building excitement for a show over a period of time.

Below we dig into the supply and demand of digital original shows by release type and look at how this has changed in the past 5 years:

Binge_weekly_suply_demand.png

2019 was a turning point for streamers looking to move away from the binge release model pioneered by Netflix. While the share of titles in the top 100 which were released on a weekly schedule did not change from 2018 to 2019 (22% both years), the share of demand for weekly released titles exceeded its supply share for the first time, indicating that weekly release digital original titles finally started to succeed this year. In previous years not only was the share of weekly release streaming titles dwarfed by binge release titles, but audiences gave a smaller share of demand for these titles than the share of supply.

Both Apple TV+ and Disney+ were launched at the end of 2019 and opted to release a majority of their titles episodically. The success of these platforms’ original series in particular helped to turn the tide against the binge release consensus.

This trend has continued through today. The share of weekly release titles in the top 100 has grown each year. But, more importantly, the amount that demand for these shows exceeds the supply of titles has grown every year. The number of these shows is growing but not as fast as audience demand for these shows is. If streamers take cues from their audiences, this trend should continue in coming years.

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