Traditional networks have begun to chase the Netflix model, to varying degrees of success.
“Just one more episode… one more and I’ll be done,” might be the battle cry for television show binge watchers everywhere. With the rise of online streaming services, such as Netflix or Amazon or Hulu, binge watching television shows is some people’s preferred method of watching. When a new show premieres on one of these outlets, all episodes are released at once. Sometimes, this even leads to the site crashing from so many users attempting to view the show at once. Ever since Netflix became the first streaming service to win primetime Emmys, there has been a feud brewing between the wunderkinds, streaming services, and the defending champions, broadcast TV. Netflix claims that appointment viewing is dying and that binging shows is the future and broadcast television is growing more and more curious about the binge-watching hype.
The Netflix Model
For years, Netflix tried and failed to break into original programming, but struck gold when it picked up House of Cards in 2011 and dropped every episode simultaneously in February of 2013. House of Cards, which stars A-listers like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and is executively produced by David Fincher, quickly became must-see television. Immediately, it seemed like everyone was talking about it, critics were loving it, and, if you had not finished it within a week, you were way behind. A few months later, Orange is the New Black premiered, was similarly lauded, and, again, became must-see television. People ate up the seasons. Netflix is notoriously private about their viewership numbers, a 2016 survey found that subscribers devoured Orange is the New Black seasons in four days while House of Cards took about six days to complete. The streaming service has previously slammed the broadcast method of releasing episodes week to week saying that, “It’s kind of like the horse, you know, the horse was good until we had the car. The age of broadcast TV will probably last until 2030.” With these two shows, Netflix established a permanent footing for viewers who wanted to watch what they wanted, when they wanted it, and not be bound by broadcast or cable TV schedules.
So how have broadcast television responded to this new model? Well, some of them have taken note of Netflix’s success with the binge-watch method, and tried to beat them at their own game with the double whammy of dropping all episodes of a season online AND airing weekly episodes. Has it paid off? In 2015, NBC became the first broadcast network to take part in the experiment when all 13 episodes of Aquarius were made available on NBC’s website, their mobile app, and cable VOD platforms the day after the series premiered. For its first season run, ratings for the show averaged at around .53, which is pretty dismal for a primetime television show airing on Thursday nights, but somehow it still managed to get a second season renewal. I guess the streaming numbers must have been huge because, normally, a show with those ratings would be axed immediately.
Starz has always had difficulty competing with other premium cable networks and decided to take the chance with simultaneously streaming on VOD and Starz Play and airing episodes for three shows: The Girlfriend Experience, Flesh and Bone, and Da Vinci’s Demons. Starz’ EVP of Program Planning explained that these shows were chosen because they lent themselves to “a binge viewing experiment.” For Flesh and Bone, having the option to binge the episodes did not turn out in Starz’ favor as viewership numbers were abhorrent with a rating of .04 through five of eight episodes. It did not come as a surprise to anyone that it was cancelled after one season. With Da Vinci’s Demons, Starz opted only to experiment with this release method for the third and final season as a kind of #yolo move. For the first two seasons, the show aired regularly on Fridays and Saturdays and received generally good reviews with pretty middling ratings.
Enter The Girlfriend Experience
The Girlfriend Experience, however, changed the game. Even before its official premiere, critics were eagerly anticipating the show loosely based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name. Since airing, The Girlfriend Experience actually became Starz’s second highest rated show. Counting online streaming the next day, The Girlfriend Experience’s premiere garnered 1.5 million viewers. A new Starz show has not done that well, upon premiering, since Outlander brought in 1.76 million viewers back in August of 2014. Now that the season has concluded, The Girlfriend Experience is being praised by critics as one of the best television shows of the year.
In kind of a hybrid between broadcast methods and online streaming methods, TBS decided to air all ten episodes of one of its new comedies, Angie Tribeca, in a 25-hour “binge-a-thon.” TV Land is also working on developing more and more serialized programming where the plot unfolds with each episode. Even CBS is wondering if the commercials shown between the episode airing should be serialized so as to tell a story.
I, personally, prefer the week-to-week viewing method over binge watching a whole season of a show. Whenever I binge watch shows, I end up losing interest about halfway through. I should also mention that was actually one of the few people to binge watch The Girlfriend Experience over just a few days, but also watch the episodes air live. When binging, I became totally hooked, but stopped paying close attention to the action about halfway through. I had missed so many details that I ended up rewatching the series as it aired. I like having something to look forward to watching each week. It makes me appreciate the show, the details, the everything just that much more.
Simultaneously airing and streaming all episodes has not always worked in the networks’ favor, but I think they will continue to experiment with the possibility of it because why not. If it has the right concept and is executed well, like The Girlfriend Experience or Orange is the New Black for example, binge streaming totally works and audiences will respond to it. And, Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix can say all they want about appointment viewing, but they have all experimented with airing episodes week to week. Streaming services simply cannot deny that appointment shows on broadcast networks reign supreme and are not going anywhere any time soon. Can you even imagine the pandemonium if HBO released every episode of the last two seasons of Game of Thrones at once? I, for one, actually do not even want to imagine it. Ultimately, television is always going to be changing and adapting to what audiences want and, right now, audiences like to have options. Netflix is gonna do Netflix, and broadcast is gonna do broadcast. Bring on the television.