Netflix's horrible binge watching content distribution model

This weekend I took some time out to watch the first few episodes of the second season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. To be specific, I watched four episodes on Saturday in between taking care of other tasks. OitNB isn’t the first of their original programming I’ve watched and enjoyed. I’ve seen all of Lilyhammer, and most of the first season of House of Cards. (It’s not that I didn’t like it. I got distracted and kept meaning to go watch the rest, but just haven’t gotten around to it.) But before you begin to think this is a review of their programming, that’s not the point here.

The issue which I was discussing with a few friends this weekend was a fairly simple question: why in the world does Netflix release an entire season of shows at one time? I’d love to talk to the marketing magnates at Netflix who came up with this brainstorm, because I really can’t think of a profit or market driven justification.

When I asked among some other laymen, one answer offered was that neither ratings nor advertising revenue are a factor for Netflix original programming the way that they are for network and cable offerings. True enough, but that’s really not an explanation of why they do it this way… it’s just a reason they don’t have to do it the other way. What, if anything, is the advantage to this?

Honestly, I’m not seeing one. But there does seem to be a clear disadvantage, though it may not relate directly to immediate revenue. One of the chief drivers for movies and television programs is word of mouth. You need to generate buzz and get people talking if you want to get large numbers of viewers. It’s a commodity that no amount of advertising dollars can match. And the television shows that really generate this buzz do it week after week. One of the first shows that comes to mind currently is Game of Thrones. It’s a huge success for HBO, and every Monday morning I wind up talking to people about what happened on this week’s episode. Later in the week, speculation often crops up over what will or won’t happen next, who will get killed off or how Tyrion is going to get his butt out of a jam this week.

That sort of continual speculation leads to huge in-person and online fan bases spreading the word and attracting new viewers. Fan forums crop up where strangers from around the world can debate, praise or curse the show in posts which go on for hundreds or thousands of comments. And this is precisely what’s missing with Orange is the New Black, Lilyhammer and the other shows mentioned above. People binge watch the entire season as fast as they can and then it’s done. They may go into the office and chat about it for a few days, but after that, what’s left to say? The show is over for at least a long span of months or perhaps permanently.

I couldn’t find any hard numbers concerning online fan forums, but a quick Google search on Game of Thrones communities turned up a huge list of choices, many with hundreds of threads going on for ages. A similar search for OitNB returned far fewer choices, and the ones I found weren’t exactly active.

I wasn’t the first person to notice this seemingly missed opportunity. Matt Lewis shared some similar thoughts about Arrested Development a while back.

Netflix has decided to release their original series’ all-at-once. This encourages binge watching, which I enjoy. But it also serves to undercut the buzz they might otherwise garner as viewers anticipate the release of new episodes each week. As a consequence, their original shows debut to much fanfare, but then fail to sustain the type of ongoing commentary that, say, HBO’s Girls, elicits each week.

Had Netflix release the episodes on a weekly basis, reviewers and cultural critics might have held out hope for the show to fix its problems. In this case, that’s not an option. The verdict seems to be that the only reason to see this is for the sake of nostalgia.

I get that Netflix is trying to build an entirely new paradigm in content development, so they want to do things differently. And I suppose they can claim some credit for spawning the phenomenon of “binge watching” today. But is coining that phrase worth the loss of the buzz described above? And do you really like binge watching? Sure, it’s a long, sustained rush like staying up all night reading a great novel, but then you’re done. Anticipation is the larger part of enjoyment, isn’t it? Even if Netflix doesn’t want to do the television formula of one show per week on the same night, they should at least throttle it back to two per week or something along those lines.