I love speculative fiction, especially when it includes a mystery. So imagine my excitement this past Saturday when I learned that Netflix released the new original series Between, premised on a mysterious illness that kills everyone over 21 years old. Blue skies could wait, this day was for binge watching. Or, as it turned out, for watching a single episode and then taking the dogs for a walk. Contrary to their usual season-dump format[i], Netflix is releasing Between on a weekly basis.
This got me thinking about how release schedules affect television for both producers and consumers, and wondering why Netflix would revert to the more traditional model.
Experientially, the season-release is truly indulgent. It’s like sitting there with a half-gallon of ice cream and a spoon (hence: binge watching). The goodness keeps on coming, usually followed by a slight disorientation and a tinge of self-disgust. Along with anticipation, the end of each episode brings immediate gratification as closing credits turn quickly into an opening montage. Even when watched in moderation (reasonable size bowl of ice cream style), the viewer can select when to tune in, out, and back in. For better or worse, the viewer loses that end-of-episode lack, the excited grief and desire for the story to continue.
Reasonable people could disagree about which is a “better” release model. Sidestepping that argument (which would first require me to define “better”), I’ll make the simpler point that full season releases are stickier. That is, they keep the viewer glued to the programming for more extended periods. For instance, I watch Walking Dead (and Talking Dead) each time a new episode airs, but have no idea what comes on next. The show ends and I turn off the television. But if AMC (or Netflix) released the entire next season in one fell swoop, I wouldn’t move until the season finale. More than that, a full season release would facilitate a more complex viewing experience for me, while giving the writers reign to write the story in more complex ways.
Indeed, the full season release changes how the story is read and also, how the story can be written.
The binge watch affords attention to detail and nuance that simply gets lost when there’s a week between episodes (and then months between seasons). Viewers are people, people forget stuff. The viewer can better appreciate (or at least more closely follow) the complexity of narrative twists and character development when stories are continuous rather than fragmented and interrupted. The viewer can also better identify plot holes, character inconsistencies, lazy writing, poor editing, and other weaknesses of the content. In short, binge watching allows viewers to read the story more closely.
From a production perspective, the binge watch adds a new pressure (see sentence above) but also affords new kinds of storytelling. This struck me most clearly when Netflix released a final season of Arrested Development, a popular situational comedy that went off the air years prior. The writers wrote the show under the assumption that viewers would watch the season holistically. They told the story in reverse chronology, starting at the end and then revealing how the characters ended up in their respective predicaments. The entire first episode made no sense, nor did the writers intend for it to. The subsequent episodes were a combination of retrospective sense-making and confusing new content—which would be clarified in subsequent episodes. It was fun. More than that, it was a new way of writing a show. Full season releases give writers space to let threads remain open, playing out over a prolonged period; they can rely on the nuance and detail that viewers are more apt to pick up when episodes are watched together; characters can develop more slowly, plot shifts can be more subtle, and confusion becomes tolerable, due to the promise of clarification in a timely manner.
So if the full season release is sticker and affords more complex storytelling, why would Netflix revert to the traditional episodic release?
The boring answer is that the decision was about copyright. Canada’s City Network has rights to the show. No one can air it until CCN does. Netflix therefore releases the episodes the same day they play in Canada.
The more interesting answer is that the decision was about speed and more specifically, the relative velocity of the medium vs. the message. The medium is the streaming platform. The message is the story. Netflix decided to get the story to viewers one episode at a time, rather than waiting and releasing all episodes together once the season concluded. They slowed down the medium, which, it seems, is far faster than the message.
Storytelling is an art. Like any art, it takes time to craft a quality product. The art of storytelling and the time it requires hasn’t changed, even as the distribution of stories has taken a radical shift. An unintended consequence of the full season release is that viewers can consume a lot of content very quickly. Traditional release schedules slowly distribute the 12-24 episode of a season over several months. Alternatively, someone could binge watch the same content in a couple of days. This leaves a lot of time gaps in which viewers have little of interest in their queue. That is, the service loses some of its stickiness.
The medium is outrunning the message. Netflix, in the case of Between, is both responding to demands for content, while pacing viewers to make that content last. They are giving viewers a taste of something new, something fresh, but not all at once, not so indulgently.
As a medium, Netflix and other streaming services have fostered a new way to watch and create stories. But they still are, and must be, beholden to the storytellers.
Jenny Davis is on Twitter @Jenny_L_Davis
[i] In the U.S. Outside the U.S. weekly episodic releases are more common.