In the years since Netflix released its first original series and kicked off the Streaming Era, we’ve both marveled at and complained about the platform’s all-at-one release strategy. It was a jolt to the medium, but also a problem for smaller programs that inevitably got lost in the churn of the Stranger Things, the Bridgertons, even the Ozarks. With Amazon, Apple, Disney, NBCUniversal, Warner Bros. Discovery (then WarnerMedia), and Paramount (then CBS) all having entered the streaming fray over the last decade, the topic of a binge release versus a traditional weekly rollout has also become a hot topic of discussion, with some TV critics and fans arguing the latter model is preferable because it allows shows to better cultivate audiences and encourages ongoing engagement. But what if release schedules don’t really matter?
Forget their effect on a show’s possible ratings—with most streaming information being kept private and self-released data side-eye-worthy at best, there’s not enough verified, publicly available data out there to give us a good idea of what’s happening across streaming services. So instead, let’s focus on what the various models being utilized today are doing and what they might mean to everyday TV viewers. Because, arguably, it’s not much.
While Netflix will likely never abandon the release model it pioneered, other streaming services don’t have uniform rollout plans. Amazon’s Prime Video and Hulu—the other OG streaming services—have both experimented with different release models over the years. On Prime Video, the darkly comedic superhero drama The Boys now streams weekly after its inaugural season dropped all at once, while the epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time was released weekly after premiering with three episodes in late 2021. Elsewhere on the platform, the seven-episode first season of the coming-of-age show The Summer I Turned Pretty was released all at once earlier this summer. Over on Hulu, the Emmy-winning dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale has been released weekly throughout its run after 2-3 episode drops to kick off each season, while both seasons of the critically acclaimed hourlong period comedy The Great have been released using the binge model.
In some cases, it’s easy to understand (or at least guess) as to the thinking behind these decisions. For instance, The Handmaid’s Tale debuting with a few episodes before moving to a weekly release is a sly combination of strategies, no doubt chosen because it whets a viewers’ appetite in an effort to hook them so they’ll stay for the long run. All said, it’s not a bad approach, especially for new programs with a lot of worldbuilding that might need time to get off the ground. Prime Video’s strategy for The Boys was similar, it just took the idea and extended it to the entire first season. The comic book-based show was far from a sure thing when it debuted in July 2019, and the binge model was an opportunity to introduce viewers who were curious but unsure. By releasing the entire first season at once, Prime Video was able to introduce viewers to the show, its shocking style and tone, and make strides toward cultivating a loyal fandom in the process. Once people were sufficiently invested, it was easy to then shift to a weekly release for additional seasons and build momentum over an extended period of time while continuing to establish a solid foothold in popular culture.
If you want the cynical point of view, a weekly rollout also retains subscribers for at least a few months versus just a single month, which puts more money in companies’ pockets (it’s not unheard of for customers to cancel or pause their subscriptions once the shows they wanted to watch are over). Of course, the weekly drop doesn’t preclude fans from waiting out a season’s release and then subscribing and binge-watching once all episodes are available. This isn’t a novel practice, or even one that is limited to streaming shows—savvy TV fans have done it for years with shows that air linearly. So again, does a show’s original release model really matter?
Let’s look at another case. Earlier this year, HBO Max dropped two episodes a week of its comedies Minx and Hacks, but it launched the second season of The Flight Attendant with two weeks of two episodes and then single episodes each week after. Last fall, The Sex Lives of College Girls dropped with a 2-3-3-2 rollout. Meanwhile, on the drama side of the platform, Tokyo Vice debuted with three episodes on April 7, then streamed two episodes each on April 14 and 21, and the Season 1 finale aired alone on April 28. What kind of nonsense is this? Who can follow and predict these rollouts? Beyond launching with a few episodes to catch viewers’ attention, there isn’t really much of a pattern. It is not exactly conducive to viewing or discussing shows weekly, much less cultivating a loyal subscribership.
It’s a common complaint among journalists who cover television that release schedules are rarely made available or included in press releases. So, if those whose job it is to know when and how TV shows are released don’t even have access to that information, how is the everyday viewer supposed to figure it out and tune in? How are they supposed to know how new episodes are being released and when? The short answer is that they often don’t.
So do release schedules matter? For all the benefits or disadvantages of the various methods being used, maybe the answer is that streaming platforms should focus more on making rollout information readily available, and people will continue to pop in and watch whenever and however they want. After all, it’s essentially what they’re doing now anyway.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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