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Season two of The Circle premiered on Netflix Wednesday, and like its first season — but very much unlike the great majority of Netflix shows — it didn’t debut all at once.
The competition show is one of a handful of Netflix series that don’t follow a binge model — and while news of The Circle‘s atypical release schedule was greeted enthusiastically on social media, it remains the default mode there. Other streaming services, however, have taken a more varied approach incorporating weekly and all at once releases as well as something in between.
What data there is in the relatively opaque realm of streaming performance suggests both binge releases and weekly rollouts can work. Nielsen’s weekly compilations of total viewing time — the broadest available measure of streaming usage, albeit with its own limitations — show that while Netflix’s all-at-once releases tend to result in big premieres and heavy dropoffs a couple weeks later, weekly releases can have longer lives in the top 10.
The job of deciding on release patterns — which more than one streaming exec called “equal parts art and science” — falls to the streaming equivalent of a network scheduler. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to those executives at HBO Max and Disney+, along with Netflix’s vp unscripted Brandon Riegg about the thinking behind The Circle and other non-binge releases there.
“It was more of a hunch of us wanting to experiment and try different release patterns in releasing the episodes in these batches, as we call them, over a few weeks,” Riegg told THR about the decision to release The Circle, Rhythm + Flow and Love Is Blind in batches last year. “That hunch was based on the thought that for certain types of shows, which includes or competition shows or an arcing narrative like Love Is Blind, were the sorts of shows that [viewers] wanted to talk about and discuss and dish.”
The batch release isn’t likely to migrate to Netflix’s scripted shows in the near future. Disney+, on the other hand, has benefited from weekly releases for high-profile scripted shows like The Mandalorian and WandaVision, while most of its unscripted originals drop all at once.
Gabriel Lewis, senior vp content curation and programming at Disney+, noted that since the service launched with a huge catalog of programming, “and that library allows us to follow a more traditional weekly cadence for the original scripted series.”
“Our goal at launch really was to build our fan base by releasing content on a weekly schedule, thinking that with titles like The Mandalorian and WandaVision, those are examples where we felt a weekly drop schedule would build anticipation and it would allow viewers to experience the rollout of a series together.”
The 11-month-old HBO Max, meanwhile, has experimented with several strategies, releasing shows all at once, in batches (including The Flight Attendant and Love Life) and weekly (Doom Patrol‘s second season debuted with three episodes, followed by one each over the following six weeks).
“We are still in learning mode. We are still experimenting with what works best for our subscribers,” said Meredith Gertler, executive vp content strategy and planning for HBO Max. “And we certainly don’t believe the same rules apply necessarily across genre, so it is about taking more of a bespoke strategy that takes into account the creative and the nature of the programming.”
The available data shows that both the binge and slower release models can get lots of eyes on a show. WandaVision, for example, added viewing time for six straight weeks following a small dip the week after its premiere, according to Nielsen figures for total minutes of viewing time. Disney+ users in the United States spent 4.8 billion minutes watching the series over its eight-week run (and 640 million more in the two weeks after the finale debuted).
Netflix hit Bridgerton — which the company says is its biggest show ever by its own internal metrics — has had unusual staying power for a binge-release show, staying above a billion minutes of watch time for five weeks and totaling 10.65 billion minutes over 10 weeks. More typical is a show like Firefly Lane, which ranked first overall on the Nielsen charts for two weeks before dropping by 39 percent in week three and an additional 51 percent in week four. It fell out of the top 10 original series after five weeks.
(Streaming services contend that Nielsen, which measures only U.S. viewing, doesn’t capture the full global reach of their programming. Nielsen also only provides figures for Amazon’s Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu and Netflix. On the other hand, streamers release little to none of their own viewing data.)
Riegg said Netflix didn’t plan ahead for the batch release of The Circle last year. This time, the company gave the show’s producers a heads up about the schedule, “so they can try to make sure that that final episode of the batch has a good cliffhanger ending or doesn’t leave people in the lurch in terms of the overall narrative.”
Netflix is planning a similar release for Too Hot to Handle in the summer, hoping to establish Wednesdays as a destination for reality fans. Which brings up another component of the streaming scheduler’s brief: when to debut a show.
As with traditional TV, they look at what’s running on other outlets, the needs of their own platforms and production schedules — though they don’t have to worry about slotting shows at a specific hour of the day. “Ultimately we start with our guests, and then back out to the production timelines of that content,” said Disney+’s Lewis. “We look at our specific audience segments and then really do the best we can to create the best experience.”
Data about how subscribers are using a platform is also flowing back in all the time, which will inform future decisions about when and how to debut programming. “We know there may be certain types of content that lend themselves to binge release, so we will continue to do that, and then also [be active] on the weekly front,” said HBO Max’s Gertler. “It will continue to be, I expect, a combination of both those things, but we’ll continue to get smarter and smarter.”
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