The Increasing Value of Immediate Distribution
TV via the Internet is still shackled to the episodic structure of serialized content. Even as some networks—most notably, HBO—test the boundaries of the episodic format with shows that require a full season for narrative payoffs, they still dole out episodes on a week-to-week basis. The go-to example is the post-airing of The Wire, which was a success; the show’s popularity flourished in a format that allowed it to be watched in three to four episode chunks. However, HBO still pushes those episodes out on a weekly basis, even if that format does not suit the actual storytelling. More and more, for these kinds of shows, the initial airing simply acts as promotion for that show’s long post-airing life in ancillary markets such as online syndication and DVD sales. Still, weekly distribution is inherent in episodic content. Even Hulu airs its original programming on a weekly basis.
Netflix, however, employs a completely different model based on the strength of long tail of content; very rarely does it host shows that repopulate by the week. The one flirtation with that model was by way of Starz original programming back in 2009-2010. When Netflix picked up the fourth season of Arrested Development, there was an assumption that Netflix would choose weekly distribution. Prior to pick-up, the creator Mitchell Hurwitz discussed how the new season would be episodic, with each episode focusing on a separate character. Instead, Netflix chose the distribution method that fit their model: the simultaneous release of all ten episodes. Shortly after this announcement, Hurwitz said that he was altering the format of his show, writing now to take advantage of the serial storytelling exploited so well in Arrested Development’s first run.
Netflix will extend this plan to at least four of their five original shows. The possible outlier is David Fincher-directed House of Cards, Netflix’s first hat into the ring of original content creation.
In my previous post, I made a point that DVR was just a stopgap, a jury-rigged bridge between how television is distributed and how an increasing number of people are starting to watch television. What I didn’t touch on—and honestly didn’t fully consider—was that weekly distribution is part of that disconnect. With television, the key is to get people to tune into a channel as often as possible to get ad revenue. On a very rudimentary and basic level, television programming stresses appointment viewing, where viewers watch their beloved programs according to schedule. Online platforms, on the other hand, emphasize compulsory viewing, where people can binge on what they want to watch, when they want to do it. Weekly distribution online is counter-intuitive, since a large video library is the cornerstone of attracting a wide subscriber base.
The question becomes: if more people start to watch TV online, does weekly distribution matter? Already, short-run cable shows rarely gain large amounts of viewers during the season. Much like Game of Thrones, these shows gain buzz between the seasons and then premiere with greater numbers than those of the previous season. With heavily serialized content, viewers are more interested in shows as library assets—as are production companies.
Syndication has always been important to keeping a show running, and Netflix’s series model cuts right to it. It’s hard to deny that this is the future of television distribution. In some ways, it is already happening. All cable dramas’ second-run formats (be it online or DVD) are those that enforce the serial nature of their storytelling. And while cable dramas are an admittedly small piece of the pie, they are what Netflix and Hulu are currently competing against. To Netflix, it makes more sense to release content so that it immediately becomes a complete asset to their library.
Currently, television is best scheduled as a cultural event, which forces viewers to tune in the night of first airing or risk being left out of the cultural conversation. But television’s proliferation on DVD started changing this dynamic, and streaming video has only made it stronger. Recently, Ted Sarandos commented that Netflix helped the CW’s profit margins by licensing content before it had little syndication value and that cancelled FX Show Terriers was a surprise popular asset for the streaming site. While television networks will never forget the importance of week-to-week viewing, Netflix has seen success through complete show runs.
Not to mention, streaming sites have yet to see any success with a weekly model. Earlier this year, Hulu’s original series Battleground suffered both in viewership and continual press, further complicating the testing of the television model on streaming sites. If the entire purpose of weekly viewing is to engage a larger conversation, Battleground looks to be a nearly complete failure. It should be noted that Netflix’s Lillyhammer also made very tiny ripples in the critical community—but this seems built into Netflix’s model. Both of these shows can now be discovered in full. Battleground was hurt mainly because it employed a model that generated little publicity and actually prevented potential viewers from fully experiencing the show when they wanted to.
And that’s what it all comes down to: viewer preference. The weekly model is great for television distribution, but it seriously hamstrings the devotion carved out by popular streaming shows. Viewers are growing more and more accustomed to consuming complete narrative arcs in television series that they watch on their own time. Once an audience is hooked, weekly distribution can be a huge success (The Game of Thrones finale ratings being the most recent example), but large consumption will soon become the best hook for a TV show.
By Zac Stockton, Product Manager