There was before Netflix, and there is after Netflix. The impact of the streaming service on the modern TV landscape cannot be understated: it has altered everything from viewing habits to the aesthetics of TV itself. While there are plenty of insufferable Silicon Valley start-ups that parrot the word “innovation” like a Buddhist mantra, Netflix can lay claim to the term with the utmost confidence. Switching early into the streaming game from its origins as a DVD rental-by-mail service, Netflix was an innovator extraordinaire, spearheading the “streaming revolution” and giving the time-tested conventions of TV a rigorous shake-up from its earliest days of content production. This included the switch from a weekly airing of new episodes to an all-at-once content dump, designed to mimic the appeal of DVD box sets. Timeslots were out. Binging was in.
The format was aped by others, including rival streaming services and traditional broadcasters, such as the BBC and Channel 4, who now routinely release select series in one lump block online. But in recent months, there have been a few high-profile exceptions. Disney Plus insisted on releasing its prominent original series – including glossy Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian, and Marvel franchise series WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – on a per-week basis. The Beeb may have adopted the binging model for some of its imported series but the biggest originals, such as this year’s Bloodlands and, of course, Line of Duty, are released traditionally, one episode at a time. Numerous US networks have also stuck to traditional release patterns, including HBO, whose tense mystery series The Undoing proved a surefire hit in the UK last year when it unspooled on Sky over a series of weeks. Gradually, it’s become less and less clear whether Netflix’s radical change was ever a good idea in the first place.
The release of a new Netflix series usually follows a pattern. It hits the service, and is discussed, reviewed, memed and otherwise promoted on social media by the general public. Then, after a couple of days or a week or, in rare cases, two or three, the conversation dies down. Netflix releases a new series and a film every week; this short relevancy cycle is arguably a feature, not a flaw. There are certainly shows which profit from the binging model – unexpected word-of-mouth hits like Tiger King likely found a bigger audience because people were able to devour quickly, then recommend. But for the platform’s bigger series (such as Stranger Things or The Witcher) it’s rather diminishing.
Line of Duty and WandaVision are very different shows, but with a similar core appeal; fans spent weeks trying to “solve” the show’s mysteries, combing through the latest episode for clues and foreshadowings. In WandaVision, this was a supernatural mystery, concerning the bizarre faux-sitcom reality in which Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) were trapped. In Line of Duty, the mysteries were myriad, but chief among them: piecing together the identity of the corrupt police mole known as “H”.
Both series ran for around a month and a half. Both series were at the front of the pop-cultural discourse throughout the entirety of their runs. And both series simply would not have worked as binging releases. Fans would’ve had to squeeze their theorising and sleuthing into the time it takes to prepare a cup of tea between episodes.
The weekly model has demonstrably paid off: BBC and Disney reported record viewing figures for the respective programmes. Line of Duty’s finale drew 12.8 million UK viewers – a 56.2 per cent share of the nation’s total viewing audience. Like Netflix, Disney Plus doesn’t release comprehensive figures, but it revealed that WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier rank as the service’s most-watched series premieres ever, with Nielsen data suggesting that WandaVision’s viewership grew significantly as it reached its finale.
It’s not just these sorts of twisty mystery-centric shows that work better stretched over a protracted broadcast schedule. From heavier dramas to frothy sitcoms, most types of TV show benefit immeasurably from a little space and time. Good TV takes time to process. Would The Sopranos have worked anywhere near as well if each season was deposited in 12-episode content dumps? Or Game of Thrones?
A consistent, repetitive release schedule was the appeal at the core of TV’s success for decades. Unlike cinema, TV is (or was, historically) a long-form medium. You could get to know characters over time, come to form a relationship with them. The only relationship the Netflix model promises is a frantic one-night stand. Of course, viewers are free to ignore the impulse to binge, and parcel out episodes of Bridgerton or BoJack Horseman to themselves as patiently as they wish. But in the era of social media, such restraint runs the risk of encountering spoilers – or that much more ghoulish fear: of being left out of the conversation.
There are signs that Netflix could convert to a more traditional way of thinking; recent reality series The Circle and the forthcoming Too Hot to Handle are being doled out on a weekly basis. Whether it will ever do the same for bigger drama releases is unclear, but the success (and sustained free publicity) of shows like WandaVision and Line of Duty will definitely have raised some questions internally. Netflix set out to shake up the very essence of television – maybe all it needed was a gentle stir.
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