There is no doubt Netflix's strategy of enabling users to binge-watch old TV episodes has been successful, but is it the optimal strategy for releasing high profile new content?
They generated huge amounts of social buzz when they launched the second season of House of Cards and Netflix was mentioned in 38 percent of online discussions about the series, but within a few weeks we had all gorged ourselves on the new episodes and the buzz has died down significantly.
As a user, it's great to have the option to watch them all at once, but is it too much of a good thing? Do we lose some of the energy by not being made to wait? Is Netflix missing out by not using a serial model, an absence of the intense discussion that builds in the anticipation of a weekly chapter? So many questions.
The HBO Release Model
HBO air their big shows in prime time slots and make episodes available on demand shortly after. For returning hits, the result is a big spike of buzz when an episode first airs -- followed by continued discussion as people watch it on demand and start to talk about it with others. While the weekly slot was originally a model developed by broadcast networks to sell prime time advertising and HBO has no time sensitive ads to sell, the model still has signifiant benefits to the viewing experience.
Over the last few weeks it has been crazy how True Detective has exploded into relevance, the energy has built and built, every week the web has been awash with great articles like "How 'True Detective' Will End."
I was pulled into a barbershop conversation about the show last night -- you can't escape it. The serial release model is optimal for this type of dialog. Constant fuel, teasing viewers each week. It's great storytelling and it drives the audience to form a tribe and connect with others around the show because they are all at roughly the same stage. But what about those of us that want the option to stuff our face with five episodes at a time? Screw all these rules, I won't bend to the will of traditional TV! Well that is where our friends at Netflix deliver.
The Netflix Release Model
The second season of House of Cards generated a massive amount of buzz at launch. Everyone knew it was out and we rushed to watch it. I inhaled it over two days, but I had regrets; it was almost an overdose and I wished I had savored it over a longer period. Sure, it was fun at the time but perhaps it was too much of a good thing. Maybe the buzz isn't quite the same when you have another one in the chamber. Two percent of Netflix's 33.4 million U.S. subscribers -- 670,000 people -- binge-watched all 13 episodes in the first weekend. Can we be trusted to pace ourselves, or is some sort of prescribed allocation better for us?
If True Detective was released on Netflix we just wouldn't have the huge amount of exceptional press coverage and discussion threads that have complemented the show so well. Yes, they would still talk about how it is the best show out right now and that it is one of the pearls formed in the new rise of television, but if it was released all at once there wouldn't be space for these theories to develop and evolve. There wouldn't be a chance for new viewers to catch up and take part in the discussion. We all would have finished the season weeks ago.
For now, Netflix has to release its original TV content as a full season because that's what makes it unique -- it puts the power in our hands. Viewers also need to watch a few episodes to get hooked on a new series, so it works well for new content. Netflix should consider the amount of buzz True Detective has been generating weekly. It's hard to argue with the jittering anticipation of millions, feverishly commenting and talking to anyone that will listen.
The Netflix model lets you binge alone -- often in ways you wouldn't want anyone knowing about.
HBO's weekly release gives you the chance to be part of a tribal progression, moving collectively towards an end goal, building energy every week.
Sure, there is space for both, but there is something so powerful about millions of people rising and falling with a plot line all at the same exact moment, phones in hand, following the conversation and sharing their shock. I guess this, along with live sports and awards shows, are traditional TV's last remaining fortress.