If you paid attention at all to any of the Netflix headlines this week, you were no doubt confronted with the revelation — including from us — that Netflix is experimenting with a different release schedule for some new TV seasons. The short version of what’s going on: These are reality shows like The Great British Baking Show which air on Netflix that we’re talking about here, which almost beg to be spread out to keep people hooked from week-to-week.
Nevertheless, Netflix is such a titanic force in media and entertainment that pretty much everything it does is scrutinized, debated, praised, critiqued — and deservedly so. Thankfully, the streamer responded this week that barring a few outliers, it has no plans to back off its all-at-once release schedule, unlike some of its forthcoming rivals, which is arguably a more problematic approach.
Netflix rivals from both Apple and Disney (Apple TV+ and Disney+) are set to be unveiled in November, and they’ll reportedly be leaning on a weekly release schedule for episodes of both services’ original TV content. Which, at first blush, might even seem sensible to some of you. Especially with Disney, which already knows it has a huge pile of content it knows for a fact you’ll want — and so teasing you into subscribing and then being forced to stick around week-to-week can be seen as one strategy to fight back against Netflix. Then there’s the fact that prolonging the release schedule would also presumably extend the window of time in which people are talking about said series.
But, according to Netflix, which has spent years studying this, that’s not how you satisfy consumers.
Viewers might sometimes get hooked on a show by watching its pilot, but that’s almost never the case, the streamer’s research shows. In fact, Netflix figured this out some five years ago, based on a study of more than 20 shows across 16 markets, the full results of which you can check out here.
To cite one example: According to the findings, Netflix determined that it took viewers generally four episodes of Better Call Saul before they got hooked on the Breaking Bad spinoff. For Mad Men, which is a much slower burn, Netflix’s data shows that it took six episodes. For How I Met Your Mother, it took eight.
Those episodes are the point at which 70% of viewers then went on to complete at least that same episode’s season along with one additional season. “In our research of more than 20 shows across 16 markets,” Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said at the time, “we found that no one was ever hooked on the pilot. This gives us confidence that giving our members all episodes at once is more aligned with how fans are made.”
There are a few important caveats to point out related to this testing of viewer behavior. What it measured is the behavior of viewers relative to full seasons of content available and ready to binge on Netflix. The very thing Netflix popularized and got people hooked on in the first place, weaning them away from the appointment-style viewing of live TV.
There may be some viewers out there who, in a way, reset their whole framework around expectations when they’re dealing with a show that only has weekly availability. And then there’s the fact the services like Hulu have already been getting people accustomed to a slower, weekly release schedule. I suspect, however, that such people are in the minority — and that this is going to seriously hamper Apple’s TV effort which includes mostly new projects, compared to Disney which is at least giving people lots of shows based on brands they already know and love like Star Wars.
It’s like that great line from The Wire, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.” This also goes for not engaging in that same fight with one hand tied behind your back. Going up against Netflix with a weekly release schedule feels a little like that.