June 2, 2023
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ColumnsPopped Culture

Column: The case for the weekly streaming model

In 2013, Netflix forever changed the way we watch television with the entire first season of “House of Cards” releasing all at once. At the time, it was a big risk, and its success was far from guaranteed. Now, that model is all that many television watchers know.

The thinking with the binge-watching model is exactly this: Why impatiently wait each week to watch episodes of an entire season of your favorite show when you can just watch them all at once? To solve the mystery in shows like “Stranger Things” or “Wednesday,” all subscribers have to do is click “Next Episode.” It’s that simple. The answers to our burning questions after the first episode are suddenly right at our fingertips. But is binging shows really all it’s cracked up to be?

Perhaps the best case for a streaming service making the most of the weekly streaming model is HBO Max with its weekly hold on the Sunday night spot. Currently, “Succession” is in the middle of its fourth and final season. Just in the past year, HBO Max has employed the same release strategy for multiple hit shows, like “Euphoria,” “House of the Dragon,” “The White Lotus” and, most recently, “The Last of Us.”

Getting to experience these shows every week and going online afterward to discuss the juiciest details of each new episode is nothing short of exhilarating. There’s a built-up anticipation and fanbase that makes watching the latest HBO show every Sunday night feel like a true community event — processing what has just happened in the latest episode and theorizing over what is to come next. For a show like “Succession” that has 10 episodes lined up in a season, that’s 10 weeks of people talking about the show. The momentum of the show just keeps going and, for people subscribing to HBO Max just to watch the show, that guarantees that they will keep paying for at least a few months.

When an entire season of a show is released at once, there’s an element of anticipation that is sorely missing. Sure, it’s convenient that everybody can watch the show on their own time, but there’s less of a community surrounding each new episode. I’ve often found myself starting a season of a show and getting overwhelmed by the number of episodes, choosing not to finish it. If the entire season is available to watch at any time, there’s less of an incentive to watch it immediately since it’ll always be there. Having new episodes of a show premiere weekly gives fans an incentive to come back, whereas many people binge shows in a matter of days, and then that’s it. As a result, the discussion is less likely to stay relevant.

There’s also the matter of spoilers. It’s astonishing how fast you can find fans posting about the season finale of the latest streaming show mere hours after the season dropped. There’s certainly always going to be the risk of getting a show spoiled no matter what, but releasing episodes weekly puts all viewers on the same level.

Some streaming platforms have employed a hybrid approach. Hulu, for example, released the first three episodes of the first season of “Only Murders in the Building” on the same day, while the remaining seven episodes were dropped each subsequent week. The critically acclaimed Hulu show “The Bear” and Amazon’s “Swarm” still stuck with dropping all episodes at once. However, many shows have seemed to shift back to the weekly model in recent years. On Disney+, Star Wars shows like “The Mandalorian” and “Andor” have released episodes weekly. Perhaps Disney feels more confident using this model for shows with a previously established fanbase. But you can’t exactly say the same for original HBO shows like “Succession” and “The White Lotus,” which have been able to naturally build up fans. The success of shows on both models makes it difficult to decipher which is truly the best.

Even Netflix has recently experimented with their established release model: the fourth season of “Stranger Things” was released in two parts, with the first seven episodes being dropped at once and the final two episodes being released over a month later. That season became the most viewed English-language show to date on Netflix’s platform, so it was clearly still an accomplishment.

The world of television and streaming are constantly changing, and it’ll be interesting to see what changes come about in the next 10 years. Many people online continue to debate the pros and cons of each release strategy. Only time will tell how viewing habits change and how the industry, in turn, tries to keep up.

Matt Minton can be reached at mminton@ithaca.edu