The Downward Trend of the Binge-Watching Experience
It's been five and a half years since Netflix debuted House of Cards, the show that put Netflix on the map as a serious producer of original content. Since then, Netflix has rained down a deluge of their own programming, releasing hundreds of titles spanning every genre from stand-up comedy to documentaries. Every one of these (with the exception of the weekly variety-type shows) has followed their binge-watch format, where entire seasons are released at a time. Back then, it was a novel concept. Television was typically consumed on a weekly basis from September to May, with winter and spring breaks, where a finale had to hold you over until the next season in the Fall.
For many years, it served as the feature that distinguished from the rest. Even to this day, no other major streaming service or network (Hulu, Prime, HBO, etc.) has adopted that model, opting instead for weekly releases. And in the beginning, it served its role in a positive way. It was framed as giving power to the viewer, so the viewer could choose how they watched the show. They could finish it in a night, a weekend, or over several months. It worked. It was a sudden rush of content that could fill the time, such that where 'Netflix and Chill' because a phenomenon. Along with the premiere of Orange is the New Black only five months after Cards, Netflix solidified its role as a power player in binge-able prestige television.
But while the binge model helped Netflix reach its current heights (Season 2 of Cards netted Netflix 4 million new subscribers, effectively paying off the production costs of the show, and very few of those were just free-trial subscribers), it has reached the end of its useful life. The main reason why it worked was because it gave people a huge library of fresh new content to choose from. But now, we have plenty. There are enough hours of television to the point that we'll never have to say "there's nothing to watch" ever again. It could even be called an oversaturation; it seems like Netflix drops a trailer for a new series once every few days (remember when they announced a sequel for Cloverfield during the Superbowl, saying it would be available for streaming right after the game was over?). And while the power is indeed with the viewer, no one who's a fan of a given show would voluntarily spread it out. It's a false choice.
Nearly every Netflix original I've seen has been great – including Narcos, The Crown, Stranger Things, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Ozark, Mindhunter, Altered Carbon, Dear White People, American Vandal, and Jessica Jones to name a few (with only been a few busts, including Girlboss, Iron Fist, Sens8, and The OA). But most of them would have been better under the traditional model of weekly releases. Shows like Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why (regardless of your feelings on the subject matter of that show) have already had huge cultural impacts, but imagine how they would have been over the span of a couple months. If you want to flip that construct around, imagine if an entire season of Game of Thrones was released in a single day. Right now, it dominates the realm of water-cooler discussion through Tuesday, has theories build up via groupthink during the middle of the week, and has people making watch party plans by the time Friday and Saturday roll around. If you don't watch the show, you're missing some watershed moments in modern popular culture for a solid two months.
While Netflix shows generate some buzz in their current iterations, they could occupy that Thrones-space with any of their big shows. Cards is entering its final season, and will undoubtedly get big numbers even without the presence of Kevin Spacey. The final eight episodes will determine where it lands in the pantheon of all-time great political dramas like The West Wing, but its bingeability hurts it. Like all Netflix shows, they may be talked about for a week or maybe even a month, but an afterthought for the next eleven. Despite how great the final episodes end up being, it likely won't be considered to be in the same class.
The main downside of the weekly model – one that is quite apparent in network television shows – is that individual episodes have to serve as self-contained stories. Binge shows were thought to have more liberty with the complexity of their storylines that run through multiple episodes. But that's been proven false with originals from streaming services – look to any of HBO's big shows (e.g. The Night Of, The Young Pope, Westworld, and Succession) for guidance on quality, which is increasingly attributable to the length of a season rather than its release schedule. And while the discussion often centers around Netflix's big hitters, the smaller shows are often relegated to 'background TV', something to keep on while you're doing another (usually more important) task. These suffer the most from being binged, as the viewer comes away with little knowledge of the nuance or the details of what actually happened. For a weekly release, such a smaller show would grow a more loyal audience that could fuel its longevity.
With Cards set to end, and Orange inching closer to the finish line, Netflix is set to enter a new era of original content. While it's a drastic shift from the strategy that they've built their brand on, it may be a necessary one if they want to maintain dominance in the streaming universe.