I oftentimes get the feeling that the meaning of ‘episodic’ is quite diluted nowadays, especially when referring to series or shows. To go to the root of the word, ‘episodic’ in the context of any sort of story, means that it is broadcast or published as a series of installments. Or, the very nature of installments is that they are meant to be separate, not part of one chunk. For decades, traditional television was adhering to episodic releases – people would know when the next episode of their favourite show would be on – day of the week and time – and they would know to either be there, or otherwise tape it. Seasons of TV shows were often rather long, and the standard was 20-30 episodes per season, meaning that with one or two breaks over the summer of holidays, you could stretch an entire season over a whole calendar year, with a weekly broadcast.
This arrangement became less and less prominent as viewing trends started to deviate from this well-established standard. First of all, seasons got shorter – 8 to 10 episodes is the industry average now, and has been for some time. And secondly, perhaps most importantly, the emergence of streaming and online viewing platforms for the type of content that was traditionally made for television meant that viewing patterns very much changed. One would no longer need to be in front of their TV on a specific day at a specific time – they could watch the episode whenever else they liked, could watch it on the go via their phone… the options became limitless. And so, platforms such as Netflix started to experiment with releasing entire seasons at one moment in time, allowing binge-watching of the full content. What are the differences between these models, and what are the advantages for each one?
1. Once per Week
The traditional weekly release. Many shows still do this – Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power did it, The House of the Dragon did it, Twin Peaks: The Return did it, the Star Wars series did it, and certain platforms – HBO, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime – tend to stick to it for the majority of their projects. It brings obvious advantages – by stretching the time period over which people can consume the content, you stretch the possibilities of marketing it, and also enable viral marketing to do its job much better. You will have conversations between family, friends and coworkers about specific episodes, debates over who is who and what will happen next – which you just don’t have if audiences are allowed to binge watch. Binge watching means that pretty much everyone will be at different points through the story at any given times, meaning that discussions on equal footing, while avoiding spoilers, is quite tricky.
Of course, for producers, there’s also the consideration of whether it’s a rolling production – in which case, deadlines can be super tight – or at the very least, having enough resources and bandwidth to also do a much longer marketing campaign. By keeping interest alive across a number of weeks, you may not have the absolute highs that concentrated releases have, but you may have considerable highs for a much longer period of time.
2. All at Once
I am not sure whether or not Netflix pioneered the ‘all at once’ release, but they certainly built their name around it. With series such as House of Cards, Dark, Money Heist, The Witcher and Stranger Things – some of their biggest blockbusters – having all their episodes unlocked on a single date, Netflix pretty much ensures that their target audience will be spending loads of time with the brand they have built, in a condensed period of time. This means, in turn, that launch because much easier to manage, and most marketing resources can be put into it in order to have the biggest impact it can have. But, once the content is our there, it is trickier to promote or tease, once many people already watched the whole thing. As we established, viral conversations come with their own set of complications, and interest fades away quicker – or does it? What is certain, some people may choose to start a new account with a free trial, binge watch like crazy for two weeks, then unsubscribe – and still, they can watch full, newly released series in that time.
Of course, it’s not as simple that a golden rule can be fit across the industry. It very much depends on the content, about the experience that is being ‘sold’ as part of the series, and the target audience itself. Should people spend a lot of time with the show over a short period of time, and will that enhance or diminish the viewing experience? And how does it all fit in within the ever more competitive streaming landscape? There is, for instance, the argument that the mega-hit Squid Game could not have made the massive impact and attained the status of global phenomenon if it hadn’t been released all at once, with a statement saying: “[i]t’s hard to imagine, for example, how a Korean title like Squid Game would have become a mega hit globally without the momentum that came from people being able to binge it.”
3. In Batches
And here’s what Netflix has been testing out for a while, and more recently it has been rolled out to some of their most popular series. Both the final season of Money Heist, as well as the most recent season of Stranger Things, have been released in two ‘all at once’ batches, with a break in-between. This strategy has the advantages, as well as disadvantages of both the traditional model, and the one Netflix seems so faithful to. It has a massive launch, and a smaller launch subsequently – which is also rather large, since it delivers the denouement of the story. It provides the opportunity for viral marketing and conversations to flourish during the break period, while also making it more difficult for people to unsubscribe after watching, since this way they would only get to watch the first part of the season.
And it seems to have worked very well. Volume 1 came out shortly after Netflix was struggling massively, and losing subscribers at a fast pace. And while the decision to give Stranger Things its first batched release cannot be singled out as the thing that saved Netflix, it certainly worked in its favour, stretching its numbers over multiple quarters, and in the end leading to a significant subscriber gain. Is it the best strategy in every case? Most likely not. But I have the feeling we’ll start seeing it more and more in the coming years.