When it was revealed earlier this month that Netflix was experimenting with a 1.5x speed feature to encourage more binging on its platform, the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Director Judd Apatow tweeted the company, asking it to leave shows “as they were intended to be seen.” Peter Ramsey, director of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, echoed Apatow, asking, “does everything have to be designed for the laziest and most tasteless?”
One can’t really blame Netflix for trying. With Disney and Apple recently entering the streaming market, Netflix is under more pressure than ever before to defend its lead. The company is investing billions of dollars in original content — but so are its challengers. Therefore, it’s understandable that Netflix is trying to innovate on its technology to uncover new ways of keeping people on its platform.
But this recent news also highlights how the behavior of binge-watching is going through an interesting evolution. When Netflix first started, the ability to watch a full season in one go was a radical idea — and one that people loved. But newer streaming services have pulled back on this strategy. The Morning Show, a star-studded offering from Apple, has weekly episodes. All Disney+ originals will be doing the same — including one of their most buzz-worthy hits, The Mandalorian.
To be fair, the weekly release approach is not something new in streaming — some Netflix and Amazon Prime Video shows follow this schedule. But most of the biggest shows on Netflix follow the binge model of releasing one full season at once.
As the streaming wars heat up, consumer attitudes and behaviors regarding binge-watching are evolving very quickly as well. With more streaming services available in the market, it’s becoming overwhelming to keep up with new shows. There is too much content to binge but so little time. Now is the time for companies in this space to take stock and examine how the addition of new players is shaping consumer preferences and explore whether a new approach is necessary.
Binge-Watching Is the Norm
While Apple’s and Disney’s strategy of releasing a weekly episode seems to be working, it actually flies in the face of current consumer behavior. We recently did a study at Reach3 Insights surveying 300-plus streaming subscribers about the current landscape. To maximize the representativeness and richness of insights from this study, we engaged people via modern messaging platforms (rather than email) using software from Rival Technologies. Binge-watching was a theme that naturally emerged from this chat-based survey.
Subscribers report spending an average of 12.5 hours per week watching streaming services. A majority of these subscribers — 92% — say they binge-watch shows on a regular basis. When asked which shows they last binged on, many mention Netflix’s Stranger Things and The Office. Premium cable shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, AMC’s Breaking Bad and Showtime’s Shameless also got a significant number of mentions.
(Interestingly enough, roughly 30% of streaming subscribers said they recently binged on an older or classic sitcom. We expected this number to be higher given all the brouhaha over the news that Friends is leaving Netflix in 2020 and with Netflix paying $500 million for Seinfeld.)
Nevertheless, our study shows that binge-watching is a dominant behavior among streaming users. They feel it helps them keep track of the plot lines without having to remember back to the previous week, as well as being able to efficiently fill up larger blocks of free time that might come up. Not to mention being able to indulge in the “just one more” temptation of instant gratification.
Does this mean Disney and Apple are making a mistake releasing their content on a weekly basis? Not necessarily. As one TVLine columnist recently wrote, the weekly cadence may offer relief to many viewers overwhelmed with their queue of shows to watch. It may also offer the opportunity to create a longer buzz for shows as binge watching can lead to viewers completely moving on to something else sooner: a Mintel study in 2019 found that binge-releases may be costing Netflix millions of social media interactions.
Something In Between?
On average, streaming subscribers who participated in the Reach3 study said they binge-watch an average of four episodes in one sitting. This is an interesting finding given that a typical drama or comedy show on Netflix has a dozen or so episodes. People don’t consume that many episodes in one sitting. Only 8% of the streaming users we engaged with said they watch more than 10 episodes at once.
To that end, I can’t help but wonder if streaming services may benefit from releasing a smaller number of episodes more frequently. For instance, what if Netflix released the third season of Stranger Things over three weeks rather than putting them all out in one day? This would give fans of the show something to binge on while also having something to look forward to the next week.
Admittedly, this move may frustrate some users who have gotten used to watching all episodes at once, but it also introduces some interesting benefits. For one, it will extend the buzz for shows and, as a result, reduce the need for streaming services to have a big new show or movie every single week. Consider Lost, one of the biggest TV phenomenons of the 2000s. Without the weekly cadence that allowed viewers to obsessively discuss the most recent cliffhanger or theories, would it have snowballed into the cultural powerhouse that it was? Perhaps, but it’s likely to have had a huge debut and then fizzle out quickly.
Releasing a smaller number of episodes over a few weeks will also help streaming subscribers to catch up. There’s an overwhelming amount of new content available to people these days — and giving people a big number of episodes to catch up on will not help. It will be a lot easier and less intimidating for people to catch up on three episodes rather than 10 or 12. And our data certainly suggests that releasing a handful of shows is more aligned with actual consumer behavior.
Striking the Right Balance Is Key
Getting the right number of episodes to release is especially important for newcomers such as Disney+ and Apple TV+. While there’s high interest in these services, they need to aim much higher to pose a real challenge to Netflix.
Streaming companies will have to contend with the fact that some people would always prefer to binge-watch, while others would enjoy the thrill of seeing a new episode every week. Not all audiences are the same. A one-size-fits all approach is not the answer. Companies need ongoing feedback from their different audience segments to continue to serve them in the best way possible. Now is the time for Netflix and other companies to invest in consumer insights and evolve with their customers.
Leigh Admirand is senior VP and founding partner at Reach3 Insights, a Chicago-based research consultancy.
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