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Late in August, just a couple months before Disney+ was set to launch, Disney announced that the streaming service would release episodes on a weekly basis, bucking the “binge-watching” model embraced by Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
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Releasing episodes of TV one week at a time certainly doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it’s been conventional wisdom for a while that binge-watching is better for everyone involved. Why not let viewers choose how they want to watch? If you want time to marinate afterward, you can give it as much space as you want.
“There’s no reason to release it weekly,” Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in 2016. “The move away from appointment television is enormous. So why are you going to drag people back to something they’re abandoning in huge numbers?”
He has a point. There is something thrillingly satisfying about devouring an entire season at once, and it’s hard to imagine the pendulum ever swinging back to “appointment television.”
Whether you blame DVRs, streaming services or smartphones, TV ratings have declined dramatically for even the most popular shows. Twenty years ago, the seventh season of Frasier — the sixth most popular show on TV that year — pulled in more live viewers on average than any show in 2019, including Game of Thrones’ series finale. And of the 50 most-watched broadcasts in 2018, only three were scripted TV shows.
It seemed like the debate had been settled: Audiences are more fractured than ever, and they want the freedom to watch on their schedule. In fact, according to a recent Morning Consult/Hollywood Reporter poll, 60% of adults who watch TV on-demand said they binge-watch (defined as watching two or more consecutive episodes of a show, at least once a week).
So why is Disney going back to a weekly release schedule?
The answer probably comes down to money. Here’s how Sarandos described the initial pushback from Netflix’s binge-watching model: “I got a call from every network executive I knew who said: ‘Don’t be crazy. You’ve got this huge investment, drag it out. Make ’em come back every week, and you could launch new things off of them.’ It just sounded to me like the same kind of managed dissatisfaction that is the entire entertainment business.”
“Managed dissatisfaction” is a bleak way to describe fans waiting for next week’s episode, but there is truth to that. Weekly releases force viewers to stay engaged — and subscribing — for longer, even if they’d rather watch the next episode immediately. When given the option, most of us will burn through a show we love as fast as we can, and just as quickly move on.
It’s easy to see why that wouldn’t be optimal for the companies making the shows. Here’s how search interest for Stranger Things and Game of Thrones compares:
There are dramatic spikes when a new season premieres, but Game of Thrones’ last for the entirety of the season — typically around two months — while Stranger Things rises and falls within a couple of weeks. Netflix has confirmed that itself, reporting that 18.2 million accounts finished season three of Stranger Things within four days of its release — less than the time it takes most shows to get to episode two.
It’s possible that this sustained interest is just HBO holding its audience hostage for more engagement, the “managed dissatisfaction” Sarandos harped on. But maybe there’s something essentially “TV” about it, too.
The weekly release gives us time to digest the episode we just saw and anticipate the next one. A whole cottage industry has popped up in these waiting periods. There are currently around 40 Game of Thrones podcasts in Apple Podcasts, with at least one clocking more total hours than the show itself. Releasing everything at once largely erases the opportunity for this collective geeking out.
That large-scale, protracted fandom — the kind inspired by shows like Lost, which TV critic Emily Nussbaum described as “designed to be mob-solved, scavenged for symbolism, and adored” — isn’t really possible with movies, books or binge-able shows. You watch one episode, then the next. The show ends, and you move on.
Television can be special because you have to wait. Here’s how Nussbaum describes this phenomenon in her book, I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution:
More than nearly any other artistic medium, television took place over time — it took time to make, it took time to watch, it happened over time…The result was a messily intense feedback loop between viewers and creators…Later seasons of television were altered by how audiences had responded to the show early on, an issue that was heightened by the presence of vocal fans gathering on the Internet: Showrunners could play to audience demands or angrily push back at them, but they couldn’t ignore them.
It’s the very thing that makes TV what it is, a uniquely interactive medium. The binge-watching model doesn’t completely miss out on this feedback loop — creators are certainly still influenced by audiences on a season-by-season, if not episode-by-episode basis — but it hardly ever seems to reach the same fever pitch.
Sarandos has apparently heard this argument before. “We do some feedback loops from the viewers in terms of giving us some of that quantitative view feedback on ‘We like this, we don’t like that,’” he said. “But we even keep it pretty close to the vest from the showrunners, unless they want to see it. Because we’re really trying to encourage them to expand on their vision. Not try to serve a specific viewer.”
There are positives and negatives to both models for everyone involved. It will be fascinating to see how fans embrace or reject the Disney+ one-episode-per-week strategy.
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