Arts and Entertainment

Watching the Masses

How does media distribution affect the consumption of television?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Joey Chen

It is 3:00 a.m. on a weekday, and you are sitting on your bed in your pajamas, refreshing Netflix on your laptop so you can be the first to binge the spin-off of That 70s Show (1998-2006): That 90s Show (2023- ). And eventually, you get it. You watch five straight hours of Netflix until you finally reach the scrolling credits of the finale. Already reminiscing about the show you just watched, you spend the next few days constantly thinking about it. In fact, it is all you can think about—in bed, in the bathroom, on the train, at church. Everywhere. But after those few days, you realize you do not care anymore. Until the next season (likely coming out in a few years), there is nothing to be excited about. Eventually, the show leaves your mind completely. If no one ever reminded you of it, you would likely have forgotten about it entirely.

Since the 20th century, cable has provided us with myriads of memories via our television sets. From sitcoms like Full House (1987-1995) to nail-biting shows like Breaking Bad (2008-2013), weekly-released episodic television has been a part of our lives for so long that it feels like a basic human need. However, the rise of streaming services in the last decade has influenced how we receive media. Some services choose to stick to the traditional weekly release, but many switch to the binge-release method. To the average person, this conversation seems quite pointless—everyone gets TV, so everyone wins! But at the same time, it is important to analyze how differences in media distribution affect not only the consumer, but the entertainment industry as a whole.

Weekly-aired television is the norm for everyone who has a favorite ongoing TV show. At the same time and day each week, a new episode is aired to the public. This is the traditional way of distributing media, and for good reason—the process of keeping viewers waiting for a stretch retains fans for longer periods of time. The more a show is renewed and the longer it runs on the network, the more time it has to gain fans and popularity. It is also palatable to the consumer because they have a week to digest the content before re-immersing themself in their favorite fictional world.

Weekly releases can also create an iconic connection between the show and its time slot. Shows like Friends (1994-2004) and Seinfeld (1989-1998) were slotted in NBC’s renowned Thursday Night lineup, which millions of households in America were bound to be watching. And the longer a popular show runs, the more people will go out of their way to block out time in their day to watch the fan favorite. With this level of devotion, fans will think, “Hmmm. It’s Wednesday. You know what that means. Let’s watch Abbot Elementary at 9:00!” It is simple, effective, and likely to last the test of time.

Binge-watching has been practiced for decades through DVD set collections of both movies and television shows, but the art of binge-releasing—the process of releasing all episodes of a new television series or installment simultaneously—allows viewers to consume entire seasons mere hours after their release. Given that the show is enjoyable—either well-produced or comfortingly mindnumbing—this method can lead to increased viewership and a larger fanbase. People who cannot afford to dedicate weeks to an ongoing show are more likely to watch an already-completed series. With binge-releases, entertainment executives can instantly grasp the show’s success through viewer opinions. On the other hand, weekly releases are cases of slow-burn reception: the show’s writing and overall success can flip on its head in a matter of seven days.

Unsurprisingly, in August 2022, NBC News reported that viewership rates on streaming platforms outrank those on cable and broadcast television. Despite this fact, general audiences regard streaming service weekly releases as superior to binge-released shows. On the Forbes Top 10 Shows of 2022 list, four of the 10 were true weekly-released shows from the pilot episode, with four more taking a variation on the weekly release. The Boys (2019- ), for example, released its first three episodes in one week and then a single episode each week for the rest of the schedule. The only two shows without a weekly release schedule were The Bear (2022- ) and Warrior Nun (2020-2022), the latter of which was canceled by Netflix due to lower season two viewership rates, catalyzed by the overpromotion of Netflix’s “lightning-in-a-bottle” shows like Wednesday (2022- ) and The Crown (2016-2022).

This is yet another problem with binge-releasing shows. The short-lived hype of these shows pales in comparison to the long-term popularity of weekly-released shows. Great shows that are binge-released may not be as well-advertised as those that are released weekly, resulting in lower viewership. For example, if a streaming service produces and binge-releases an 18-episode sitcom, it will likely have no more than three weeks of consistent promotion after its initial public release. However, if the show is released weekly, it will have approximately four-and-a-half months of additional promotion after the pilot episode. The weekly release schedule allows the show to reach more people and garner more attention.

While the viewership and industry politics behind the product are important, it is also worth noting that the way shows are presented to the public may influence their perception. The shows that suffer from this the most are largely Disney+ shows. While Marvel producers on the service have designed it so that their shows feel like a “six- or eight-hour movie”—according to Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021- ) lead Anthony Mackie—the service insists on distributing episodes weekly, which disrupts the momentum they were designed for. Episodes do not have complete storylines or threads. For example, instead of a full story in a single episode, one episode is act one, the second is act two, and the third is act three—an unappealing alternative to the episodic format. This is most noticeable in Hawkeye (2021- ), a show about the aging Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and his newfound partner, Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). In the show, there are times when episodes are meant to play off each other, with one being action-packed and the other dealing with the consequences. This would work perfectly in a binge-released show because people would be seeing one shortly after the other, but in a weekly show, the following episode ends up feeling like an awkwardly-paced drag. This anticlimactic nature makes the viewer feel as if they have waited for nothing, illustrated by the decline in viewership between episodes one and two and between episodes three and four: the 852 million minutes watched in the first week decreased to 560 million, and then even lower to 527 million. This is not much of an issue for binge-released shows, because consumers have the ability to watch at their own pace.

There is no wrong way to release media, but depending on the show, some are more successful than others. If the product is strong, consumers will enjoy it. However, it is an undeniable fact that the statistics and wonder behind the show can be largely affected by the way it is distributed. But at the end of the day, it is the viewer who is alone at midnight, refreshing their device, desperately waiting to watch.