In the digital age, with so many different distribution platforms, company goals and monetary considerations colliding against one another, Hollywood can’t seem to agree on how best to release TV shows.
Debates between weekly release purists used to traditional linear schedules and binge devotees happy to adopt a new model have been frequent in recent years. But to borrow from one of the internet’s favorite viral memes, the solution that best reflects modern consumer behavior, flexible choice, and optimal engagement may simply be a combination of both.
By running through some select executive comments and breaking down the pros, cons and data implications of various release strategies, we can identify how and why a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best strategy overall.
"There just is no data that weekly is better," Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s chief content officer, said at a UCLA law event this year. "There's no data to support that weekly is better, and it's not as good of a consumer experience.”
Netflix set out on a mission to disrupt traditional entertainment by upholding the consumer experience above all else. Who among us doesn’t revel in the guilty pleasure that is the late night utterance of “just one more episode…” But Netflix’s data set is primarily comprised of binge released series as binge is the platform’s defining trait as an original programmer over the last decade. For a company that highly values completion rate as a metric of success, providing all episodes at once can technically lead to higher completion rates. While this helps Netflix know whether or not a series may be worth investing further into two days into its release as opposed to four weeks into a 10-episode weekly series, it can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. If any company is only working from within its own dataset, it’s hard to generate accurate cross-industry comparisons.
And those comparisons are important for understanding the lay of the land outside of one’s own walled garden. Of the 100 most in-demand TV series in the US from January to May of 2023, 75 released weekly, 16 utilized a periodic release (which saw more than one episode release on a single date, though the majority of these then moved to weekly releases after debuting more than one episode at premiere) and nine shows were released via binge/partial binge. (Naturally, some of these shows were originally released weekly on linear TV prior to the streaming era and are being binge watched today and there are far more weekly releases than binge releases available in general).
Zooming out, it’s clear that more weekly-based shows seem to resonate more overall (though that is partially due to a disparity in volume as there are far more weekly series than binge). The majority of the 50 most in-demand scripted TV shows from January-June in regions such as LATAM (47), Oceania, South Asia, Southeast Asia (45), Europe (46), and MENA (47) also released the majority of episodes in their most recent season weekly or periodically. In North America, the trend doesn’t change much when discounting concluded series and only focusing on current shows (including series that aired their final seasons in 2023) as 46 of the most in-demand current shows released the majority of episodes one at a time.
Now let’s zoom in on a few specific performance traits. A decay rate compares demand during the season period, which lasts while new episodes are being released and have different lengths, and an equal period after a finale has aired. The number of post-season weeks we examine depends on the show length. For binge-release shows, we consider a period of four weeks after the initial release as in-season and the next four weeks as post-season. For something like Succession, for example, the season includes the nine weeks after premiere and through to the finale while the post-season covers the nine weeks after the last episode.
When we look at the decay rate post-season, the weekly release and the periodic release generated 44 of the 50 best decay rates for a season of TV combined dating back to 2016. In other words, demand was less likely to fall off as quickly for shows released weekly and periodically. For decay rate post-offseason, or the demand change between the post-finale period and the time until a new season begins, weekly and periodic combined for 48 of the top 50 decay rates.
If we look at the top 50 seasons of TV in terms of the number of weeks with higher demand than its seasonal average, weekly occupies 43 spots while periodic covers the other seven. If we extend that to the top 100 seasons, weekly and periodic account for 93. The very fact that a multi-week show has more available weeks to post above average demand gives it an advantage in this category. It’s no coincidence that the Top 10 seasons in this metric averaged a hefty 18.6 episodes doled out weekly or periodically. For successful series within these formats, new episodes become appointment viewing supported by ongoing audience anticipation.
These trends imply more sustained demand and above-average demand for shows released over longer periods of time vs all at once. Sustained demand typically translates to more consistent engagement and lower churn, which means better retention and a lower cost of customer acquisition.
Sitcom comparisons can provide a snapshot of these benefits. Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and NBC’s The Good Place were released one year apart from one another and each went on to accrue multiple seasons. Yet NBC’s episodic Good Place maintained a more consistent level of US audience demand than the binge released Grace and Frankie. This is not a case of streaming vs linear medium bias either as Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, which utilizes a periodic release that still sees the majority of episodes released once a week, maintains the comparison. The divide between peak and valley simply isn’t as wide.
Globally, both The Good Place and Only Murders in the Building boast more travelability (which indicates a show’s popularity outside of its home market), momentum (which indicates how fast demand for a title grows over the past 12 months compared to the speed of demand for an average title), longevity (which indicates how well a title’s demand is maintained over time) and reach (which indicates the breadth of a title’s popularity as it represents the total number of unique users expressing demand for a title) than Grace and Frankie. These categories are instrumental to the goal of prolonging demand over time without suffering steep drop offs.
None of this is to say that the binge released series is a failure. Far from it. Grace and Frankie is one of Netlix's longest-running shows. And to be fair, a platform like Netflix, which releases scores of new titles every month, would not be able to effectively schedule such a volume of TV series weekly without cannibalizing viewership.
Yet the questions streaming executives must naturally ask is how much does it cost to provide the required volume of binge release series to A) unearth a rarer long-running success such as Grace and Frankie and B) maintain consumer interest and churn rates while viewers rapidly burn through shows in one weekend? Supplying entire seasons all at once is a costly way of doing business that requires a constant stream of fresh content.
Netflix itself seems to have realized this as it continues to experiment with prolonged release strategies. Recent seasons of major series such as Stranger Things, Ozark, You, La Casa de Papel, Firefly Lane and The Witcher have been split into two batches of binge release episodes. It’s worth noting that the two-batch fourth seasons of Stranger Things (+ 82%) and You (+ 25%) rose in average US audience demand in the first 90 days of availability compared to the binge season prior while Ozark (-20%) and Money Heist (-6%) fell, though the latter two released their final pure binge season at the height of pandemic lockdowns. Arcane, which Netflix released in three batches of three episodes each, ranks among the top 10 most in-demand one-season series in the US from Jan. 1, 2020-June 20, 2023.
(Generally speaking, binge releases tend to reach peak demand in-season, partial binges tend to generate peak demand post-season, while episodic is a mix of in-season and post-season).
Netflix reality series such as Love is Blind and The Circle are released in periodic batches over several weeks while Too Hot to Handle is split into two binge portions. This has put the most recent seasons more in the demand realm of weekly linear hits 90 Day Fiancé and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
In terms of the top 50 most in-demand streaming originals in the US from 2020 to present, the supply share of binge release series has dropped 14% while the demand share has dropped 15%. In that same span, the dips for episodic releases were more muted: a 2% decline in supply share and a 3% decline in demand share. Yet periodic releases, which still often release the majority of its episodes one at a time, rose 16% in supply share and 18% in demand share.
All of this movement reflects a declining resonance for pure binges among the upper-echelon of streaming originals while periodic releases become more voluminous and garner more attention.
The value of long-running weekly series is sustained interest from a reliable commercial audience. Netflix, the preeminent binge-first platform, benefits immensely from licensed linear series — such as Criminal Minds, The Walking Dead and The Flash — that grew audience over time via original weekly releases.
Given the upfront costs required for a binge-heavy library, how significantly weekly and periodic release strategies already dominate the global TV demand leaderboard, and how these tend to maintain more consistent demand over longer periods of time while appealing most to older demographics, you can see the value in its strategic deployment.
“The best way to drive interest and engagement is not by dropping the entire season on a platform all at once, but by allowing the buzz and anticipation to build over time,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said in February.
As we covered above, there is absolutely value in a more episodic approach to TV releases. But that’s not to say that the binge strategy doesn’t have its place in the content ecosystem.
Binge releases prioritize viewer satisfaction while making it easier for audiences to consume entertainment at a time when we had nearly 600 scripted English series to choose from in 2022. Gen Z adults and millennials, in particular, seem to prefer binge releases overall. Introducing arguably the most influential innovation to TV release strategy in the medium’s history helped Netflix garner immediate attention and market share in its early years as an original content supplier last decade. The company boasted virtually no competition and, as a result, was afforded the catalog and space to test these new strategies.
Importantly, the binge release approach can elicit short yet significant bursts of hyper engagement. If the goal is to convince viewers to open your app multiple times a week vs just once, binge releases can help train audience behavior in that way by generating multiple visits. Outside of the proudest of couch potatoes, many viewers are watching the latest binge release over the course of several days (the median time for users to finish a season on Netflix is between four and six days) as opposed to tuning in just once for a weekly release. Hypothetically, that means a viewer may open Netflix four to six times in one week to binge the most recent season of Stranger Things while they may only open Max once a week for HBO’s vaunted Sunday night fare. The more frequently consumers are opening a company’s app, the stickier their subscriptions typically are. Quality retention such as this is even more crucial as the SVOD market continues to mature and new subscriber growth is harder to come by. As retention improves so too does a streamer’s ability to increase average revenue per user (ARPU) over time.
Binge releases are particularly useful for first seasons of new-to-screen concepts that audiences aren’t familiar with. Providing all episodes upfront allows for viewers to immediately immerse themselves into new worlds such as Stranger Things and The Boys (which binge released its first season on Amazon Prime Video before transitioning to a periodic release for Seasons 2-3). For example, Stranger Things Season 1 actually saw its demand increase in the post-season window, meaning interest continued to build outside of the initial four weeks as word of mouth spread.
"We think our bingeable release model helps drive substantial engagement, especially for newer titles,” Netflix said in its Q3 2022 quarterly shareholder letter. “It’s hard to imagine, for example, how a Korean title like Squid Game would have become a mega hit globally without the momentum that came from people being able to binge it.”
There’s absolutely an argument to be made that Squid Game became the sensation that it did precisely because it was binge released, allowing for a growing swell of organic hype as viewers dove head first into its twisty high concept narrative and increasingly wild stakes. A weekly release would have delayed such communal enthusiasm in this instance, though episodic shows can and do build word of mouth audiences over time (albeit in slower fashion occasionally). On the day Squid Game premiered, it ranked just 200th in worldwide demand; nine days later it reached #1 overall. It took the once-a-week series House of the Dragon, set in the immensely popular Game of Thrones franchise, a month to claim the #1 global rank. Other beloved linear weekly successes such as Yellowstone, Succession, This Is Us and The Big Bang Theory have never reached that pinnacle at all.
While weekly and periodic releases still occupied the majority, when we look at the Top 50 seasons of TV in terms of the shortest amount of time until reaching its peak demand since 2016, the binge release strategy accounted for nine such seasons. This speaks to an audience’s ability to hyper-engage with binge releases quickly while weekly and periodic releases run the risk of potentially losing audience over time. (Patience in the Too Much TV era can be a rare commodity). When looking at the Top 50 seasons of TV in terms of how much larger the peak demand was compared to the average demand, binge and partial binge accounted for 8 combined. This speaks to the significant demand spikes binge release hits are capable of generating. This is a hits-driven business and one massive home run on the scale of a Wednesday can subsidize the strike outs and singles.
A binge release hit compared to a weekly hit exists on a sliding scale, but something as big as Stranger Things seems to boast a higher overall ceiling than recent weekly hits such as The Mandalorian and House of the Dragon. (On the day Stranger Things premiered in 2016, it ranked as the 72nd most in-demand series worldwide; two days later it had broken into the top three). Six of the 15 most in-demand seasons of TV during their active season (i.e. releasing new episodes) since 2016 were binge or partial binges. While weekly and periodic seasons still claimed 41 of the top 50 spots, this underscores how high the binge and partial binge ceiling can be. The same holds true for the 50 highest post-season demand levels (the window immediately following the finale), which are dominated by weekly and periodic releases yet still see binge and partial binge combine for five of the top 10 spots. The top heavy release strategy can offer immense upside.
Meanwhile, Squid Game’s meteoric rise across its binge release provided a much smoother curve of demand engagement vs the slightly more jagged life cycle of recent weekly hits. It also rose impressively from its smaller starting point.
A binge release season, particularly for a new concept, can help quickly turn a low-profile series into a broader success. The Boys originally debuted as the 57th most in-demand series as a binge release in 2019 before breaking into the top five just two days later. Wednesday may have been a spinoff of the long-running Addams Family franchise, but its rise to the most in-demand series worldwide in just 10 days remains impressive.
Hulu’s The Bear is an entirely new and original concept which premiered last summer and recently returned for a second season, both of which were binge released. Hulu’s How I Met Your Father is a spinoff of one of the most successful sitcoms of the 21st century and has been released weekly over the course of its first two seasons. Naturally, audience familiarity with the latter brand helped it start from a higher US demand point than The Bear while its weekly release garnered more consistent demand over time. Yet the critical acclaim heaped on The Bear after an explosive first season and the recent binge release of the highly anticipated second season has put it on a trajectory to outperform both seasons of HIMYF by a wide margin. It’s an example of highly addictive content tailor made for binge release with its anxiety-inducing tension and high energy pacing.
Season 2 of The Bear is also tracking on par with Season 2 of Only Murders at similar points in their respective rollouts.
Though this precedes the Zaslav-headed Warner Bros. and Discovery merger, then WarnerMedia debuted the five remaining episodes of Industry’s first season on HBO Max in 2020 all at once while it was still airing weekly on linear HBO. This batch of episodes hit the streamer 18 days after the show’s initial linear premiere. Three days later, Industry’s first season hit its US peak demand at 11.66x. The show has since been renewed for a new season twice.
Looking at the five Netflix binge originals that ranked among the 100 most in-demand series in the US from Jan. to May 2023, these releases all managed to reach impressive peak demand rankings in their lifetimes. Stranger Things (#1), Wednesday (#1), The Witcher (#7), You (#9) and Lucifer (#9) have all topped out as top 10 overall hits. Both You and Lucifer were rescued by Netflix after linear cancellation (where they aired weekly) and have gone on to become some of the streamer’s most successful originals as binge properties (ditto for Manifest). And in the last week, Stranger Things, The Witcher and Wednesday all boasted top 10 affinity, or shared audience overlap, with two other binge release series apiece, which can help create a funnel of longer-term engagement.
Zaslav is understandably looking to build buzz overtime, but that doesn’t negate the benefits of binge releases. An all-at-once approach can lead to bursts of hyper engagement over several days (two of the top 10 seasons of TV that reached peak demand the fastest were binge released), higher completion rates (Wednesday was recently anointed Netflix’s most successful English original ever after the streamer changed its weekly rankings from total global hours viewed to estimated global completions) and an easier buy-in from audiences for new-to-screen concepts. It can help pave the way for breakout hits with high upside. As Max looks to further integrate the HBO Max and Discovery+ libraries, select binge releases can help build bridges between the two catalogs.
“For popular titles, weekly drops are meant to maximize sign-ups and build buzz over time,” Lana Li, senior manager of media and entertainment ad marketing at Roku, said in 2022. “Series that release all episodes at once encourage bingers to watch in bursts, potentially growing engagement and ARPU for rising ad-supported tiers.”
Li’s comments shed light on why it’s valuable to know what type of content seems to be resonating within each release strategy. Surprisingly, there’s more overlap than you might expect.
Of the top 100 most in-demand shows in the US from Jan. to May 2023 that were binge released, Drama (44.4%), Action and Adventure (33.3%), Animation and Horror (11.1% each) accounted for the three highest shares of audience demand. When looking at the 100 most in-demand shows in the US in that same time frame that were released via a partial binge, Drama (50.0%), Children (33.3%) and Animation (16.7%) led the way.
When we move to a more episodic release strategy, we see that Drama (35.3%), Animation (16.5%) and Comedy (12.9%) were the top three genres among the top 100 most in-demand series released one episode at a time followed by Action and Adventure (5.9%). For periodic releases, it’s once again Drama (27.6%), Animation (20.7%) and Comedy (12.8%) followed by Reality (8.6%).
There’s a clearly defined arena of content genres that appeal to the viewing public regardless of release strategy. Beyond that, audiences look more toward the binge model for action and adventure and horror while comedy surprisingly seems to connect more via weekly or periodic releases. Understanding these preferences can help companies build the most efficient and effective content slates. A younger streamer in need of increasing its subscriber marketshare and improving retention may opt to develop some weekly dramas and animated series flanked by comedies to drive new sign-ups and sustain demand over longer periods of time. More mature streamers with ad-based tiers may look toward select binge releases across drama, action and adventure, animation and horror to increase short-term usage and impress advertisers.
As every streaming service attempts to claw out greater profits, flexible release strategies allows for companies to better address a variety of different goals simultaneously. In doing so, platforms can maximize engagement by serving audiences the latest addictive drama via binge before recommending a weekly swashbuckling action and adventure series, or any number of other combinations. This will help improve the perceived value of a service in the eyes of consumers as it offers an eclectic roster of genres and release strategies to choose from. And the stickier subscriptions are, the more pricing power it affords a parent company. Ultimately, the goal with such a versatile lineup is to contribute to a more manageable cost of customer acquisition and steadily increase the lifetime value of a subscriber over the long term.
At the end of the day, providing consumers with flexible choice tailored to audience tastes is rarely a bad thing.