Geek Punditry #3: Beware the Binge

“I’m not going to start watching a show on Netflix. They’re just going to cancel it anyway.”

Everyone reading this, I promise, has heard someone on social media (or maybe in real life, if you’re the sort of person who has such a thing) echo that very sentiment recently. Every time a new show hits, someone says it. Every time a show gets canceled, someone says it. Every time I go through the drive-through at Wendy’s someone says it, which is actually kind of weird and makes me wonder if they’re still having staffing issues. But the point is, I get it. In this day and age, when television has become more more serialized and most shows – even half-hour comedies – have ongoing story arcs that play out across a season or even across an entire series, there are few things more frustrating to a television fan than getting invested in a series, watching their way through the end of the first season, feeling their pulse race with the cliffhanger finale, and then learning that there will never be a season two. 

The blame for this is usually placed on Netflix itself (although they’re hardly the only culprit), and while I agree that Netflix deserves a lion’s share of the culpability, I don’t think it’s for the reason most people usually mean. 

The assumption people have is that Netflix is just impatient. They won’t give people a chance to find a show and get to enjoy it. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening, not exactly. Netflix (and most streaming services) rarely release their actual numbers, so it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty how many people are watching any given show or how quickly, but a hypothesis has been making the rounds that I think is worth examining. Some shows are getting the axe despite seemingly large numbers, while others with smaller viewership are being allowed to continue, a practice that doesn’t seem to make any sense if you consider it series-by-series. It makes a lot more sense, though, if you look at it episode-by-episode.

What seems to be happening is that Netflix is basing their decisions not on total numbers of hours watched, as people tend to assume, but by how many people finish a season. If, for example, 20 million people watch the first episode of Mind Your Manners With Simon Cowell, that sounds better than the 15 million who watched the first episode of Toenail Fungus Finds of Eastern Europe, right? 

But keep watching the numbers. How do they trend? What percentage of that original number stuck it out to the end? If, by the end of the season, Toenail Fungus has retained 11 million viewers, but Simon Cowell has dropped down to 4 million, what makes more sense to renew? People who skipped out on Simon after three episodes are far less likely to come back for a theoretical second season than the much larger number of people who stuck around to find out exactly what kind of mold was growing under Slobodan Milosevic’s left pinky toe in the pulse-pounding season finale. 

The practical result of this is that shows that don’t get binged heavily in the first couple of weeks are far less likely to get invited back, and this is where that conventional wisdom comes back into play. Shows are not being given time to find an audience, you’re right. But the solution here is not to require every damn person on the planet to binge every show the second it hits the streamer. Doing things that way makes it far, far harder for a show to get traction unless it’s based on an existing IP like Wednesday. Something like The Midnight Club may be every bit as worthy of getting a new season, but as it doesn’t have that built-in fanbase, the chances of it hitting the same way are much worse. 

There are exceptions, of course. Stranger Things and Squid Game are both shows that seemingly came out of nowhere and had no ties (other than thematic ones) to previous movies, characters or TV shows that could have carried over their audience – but they’re called exceptions for a reason. For each of those, how many series like The October Faction, Cursed or Archive 81 have suffered an ignoble death?

There is a solution to this problem, but Netflix doesn’t want to hear it. In fact, I think a lot of you reading this right now will be horrified at the suggestion. But I’m going to say it anyway.

You know how to deal with the problem of people not binging shows quickly enough to save them?

Stop making shows bingeable. 

Excuse me, I need to go wash the tomatoes people just hurled at me from my hair and clothes.

But I’m serious about this. The problem is that Netflix is basing their decisions on how many people watch an entire season of a series in X amount of days, with X being some magical number they’re not going to tell us but which was clearly too small to save Jupiter’s Legacy. And as it seems these shows are getting cut faster and faster, you cannot blame any viewer for deciding not to invest their time, which means that the new shows won’t have anyone to watch them and then they’ll get cut too, and now we’re just in a never ending loop of cancellation and misery, like being back in high school, but sandwiched between a baking show and a murder documentary. 

But let’s look at other streamers. Netflix isn’t the only game in town anymore, after all, and few of their competitors have suffered from this same cancellation outrage. So what’s the difference?

Part of the problem is that tiny little “X” number – expecting people to find a show, binge a show, talk about a show, and then expand the audience in a remarkably short period of time. It’s really hard, and considering just how many entertainment options now exist, it’s nearly impossible. But look at the Marvel or Star Wars shows on Disney+, or the assorted Star Trek series on Paramount+. Not only are people watching, but people are talking about them. And not just for the days or (in rare cases) weeks of a Netflix hit, but for months. What’s the difference?

Disney and Paramount release their series the old-fashioned way: one episode a week. And that lets the audience find the show in a way that Netflix’s “drop ’em all right now” model never will.

How many Star Wars fans, disgruntled by Disney’s cinematic output, had to be convinced to try the likes of The Mandalorian or Andor? How many Star Trek fans immediately dismissed Prodigy or Lower Decks for being animated series until other fans persuaded them to give them a chance? If they had been released the Netflix way, the conversation would have ended in a few days, and a lot of people would never have given these shows a try.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I admit, because those are shows based on existing – and, let’s be honest, massive IPs, but it still demonstrates something. I hear people talking about these shows not just on the weekend after they’re released, but for months. Love them or hate them, these series have people engaged for a very long time, posting about them on social media, writing thinkpieces, and making memes. And every week, when a new episode comes out, the cycle repeats. This doesn’t happen with a binge show. Even Wednesday, Netflix’s most recent hit, had a quick surge of popularity, a lot of people talking about a dance sequence, and that one meme with Wednesday Addams next to a girl who looks like Luna Lovegood crossed with Phoebe Buffay, and then…it kinda dried up. Sure, people liked the show. Sure, people are looking forward to season two. But nobody is talking about it anymore right now, less than two months after it dropped. 

Compare that to the third season of Star Trek: Picard, which I guarantee will have people on the internet wildly pontificating for the entire ten weeks it’s on the air. And love it or hate it, they’re going to come back every Thursday for the next episode and do it all over again. And while they’re talking, other people will hear them, and the more people who hear them, the more people are likely to watch it, and that’s where the binging comes in. 

I’m not going to pretend I don’t binge watch. Of course I do, it’s 2023, it’s how media is consumed now. But for a new series it’s just not an effective strategy. Pre-streaming shows like Lost or How I Met Your Mother built their audience because fans got invested in the story, the characters, and the mystery, and they came back to talk about them again week after week, season after season. They shared their theories, they wrote fanfiction, they drew pictures of their favorite characters and, most importantly, they told other people how much they loved their favorite shows for a very, very long time. And say what you will about how those respective shows ended, they still have devoted and passionate fan bases that will spend more time talking about them than anyone is spending on Uncoupled. The ability to binge is a great tool for new fans, to get people who are discovering a show later to catch up and to join in on the fun. But as a way of kicking a series off? It’s like Netflix is Lucy holding the football and Inside Job is Charlie Brown, running in for his chance without realizing it’s already a lost cause.

Abandoning the binge-release model won’t save every deserving show, of course. Even in the days before streaming there were lots of great shows that never got past a first season, including some that weren’t even on the Fox Network. And sure, some viewers have no patience for the weekly release anymore, but I sincerely believe that the potential audience that never gets to find these shows under the current system outnumbers the people who will refuse to watch just because they can’t do it all at once.

So there’s my challenge, Netflix. Instead of dropping full seasons in 2023, try doing an episode a week. Then look at how many viewers make it to the end. 

And then maybe give The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale another chance, would you?

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He hasn’t actually gotten around to Wednesday season one yet, if we’re being perfectly honest here. 

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2 thoughts on “Geek Punditry #3: Beware the Binge

  1. I’m with you. I think weekly tv + DVD/streaming in advance of next season was the perfect model,and Netflix murdered it when it started uploading shows all at once.

    It appears against all logic the genie is somehow going back in the bottle — Disney+ shows are once-weekly affairs, and Netflix uploads most of the shows I watch in weekly increments too, although not always one episode per week.

    I’m glad. Oftentimes I wait until the hype has passed before getting around to these shows, and so I binge anyway, but not being able to before the time has passed *feels* healthy and right.

    Liked by 1 person

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