TV's Growing Dilemma: To Binge or Not to Binge?

To_Binge_or_Not_to_Binge_Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: Mark Matcho

To_Binge_or_Not_to_Binge_Illo - H 2015

NBC, Starz and Amazon back the Netflix all-at-once model, but Hulu goes traditional as more competition (and no breakout this summer) causes outlets to "throw spaghetti at the wall" to lure viewers.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Ted Sarandos kicked off the TCA press tour July 28 with a tip of his hat to Netflix's own release strategy. "What just two years ago felt like a pretty radical move, releasing all episodes at once, is now becoming commonplace," the streamer's chief content officer told reporters, adding with a laugh: "Hashtag Aquarius, or something like that."

The reference was to NBC's 1960s-set David Duchovny drama, for which all 13 episodes were made available online after the series' May 28 premiere on the linear network — one of several shows that have been released that way since Netflix shook up the traditional TV window with House of Cards in early 2013. But the degree to which networks embrace bingeing has become the topic du jour at this year's press tour, with executives parading through The Beverly Hilton with varying philosophies on how best to roll out a series after a summer in which precious little managed to cut through. The lack of consensus is illustrative of the seismic shifts occurring in the TV business that have forced distributors into what one executive dubs the "throw spaghetti at the wall phase" of TV's evolution. At issue is not only how best to reach viewers but also how to retain and monetize that audience when there are more than 400 scripted originals being made — a number so big that FX Networks CEO John Landgraf declared there is "too much TV," suggesting a contraction would come in the next year or two.

Amazon, NBC and now Starz (with Da Vinci's Demons and new miniseries Flesh and Bone) are among those employing the all-at-once launch strategy for key shows, while networks such as Fox, ABC and Hulu — perhaps the most surpris­ing of these, given that it competes with the other streamers — are steadfast in their commitment to the weekly rollout. "We value the shared experience and the joy of the watercooler experience that is television," said Hulu head of content Craig Erwich, acknowledging an about-face for a company that had experimented with binge-style releases for comedies Deadbeat and The Hotwives of Orlando a year earlier. (Amazon's Roy Price flip-flopped in the other direction, though he admitted that releasing all episodes "increases the risk of the show because if you launch it all at once, it either takes off or it doesn't.") In between is TNT, which in early August revealed it would offer four episodes of newcomer Public Morals immediately after the Edward Burns drama premieres. Turner Content Distribution senior vp John Harran said the goal is "to engage audiences who have become accustomed to these new ways of viewing content."

Of course, some outlets are better equipped to embrace bingeing than others. Sarandos touted the benefits of giving Netflix users total "control," but that's an easier pitch for a service that subsists only on subscriber revenue. Those distributors that rely on ads and affiliates — namely the broadcast networks — don't have the same luxury. To that end, multiple execs say NBC's Aquarius experiment panicked some affiliates. The show generates such low linear ratings that NBC moved it to Saturday's graveyard, where it doesn't crack a 0.5 rating with three days factored in. (The series nonetheless was renewed for a second season.)

For now, other broadcast chiefs don't intend to follow NBC's lead. During Fox TV Group chairman Gary Newman's Aug. 6 TCA panel, he pointed to Fox's breakout Empire as a case study in the value of a week-by-week release. "You'd find [people] tweeting throughout the show and blogging about it all week," he said. "Part of the reason, week after week, that the show continued to grow was because our viewers were doing a lot of the marketing for us." (Still, Newman and co-chair Dana Walden have been aggressive in securing in-season stacking rights to their series, giving them control of all episodes in a show's current season.)

Though Landgraf bemoaned the crowded landscape and its challenges, he, too, has no plans to roll out his series all at once. "I like the sustained conversation that a television show uniquely can create," he tells THR. "And while I think that sustained conversation is fracturing naturally, I don't want to help it fracture."