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TBS Takes a Swing at Streaming TV

Premiering all of ‘Search Party’ during Thanksgiving isn’t as illogical as it sounds

(Ringer Illustration)
(Ringer Illustration)

Once upon a time, putting out a whole season of television at once was a death sentence.

Roots’ massively popular eight-night run might be remembered as the biggest television event of the ’70s, but it started as an evasion tactic. ABC had made the series, but it didn’t have any particular faith in it — so rather than give Roots a prime spot on its regular schedule, the network crammed the whole thing into a single week in January to get it over and done with. Concentrating a miniseries into a powerful dose and airing it in a month with almost no competition turned out to be an (accidental) act of programming genius.

This is a practice known as “burning off” a show, and Roots aside, conventional wisdom still holds it as the ultimate vote of no confidence. Take the final season of Parks and Recreation, the abbreviated conclusion of a cult series with a small (but loyal!) audience that wasn’t getting any larger. NBC paired up the 13 episodes, already a little more than half of a standard network season, airing them two at a time and getting the whole thing out of its system in seven weeks. “New: NBC to tie Parks and Rec final season to a brick, throw it through your window,” critic James Poniewozik joked.

Nobody’s making similar cracks about Search Party, the 10-episode TBS comedy that’s exactly the starring vehicle Alia Shawkat has long deserved. The familiar story of an aimless New York millennial with a few much-needed power-ups — the structure of a mystery and the bite of a satire that refuses to romanticize its characters’ ennui — Search Party is the kind of heavily serialized show most of us would be earmarking for a binge. Except TBS has already done that for you.

After uploading the pilot a few days early, an increasingly common practice in TV networks’ attempt to bottle the lightning that is online chatter, TBS aired the entirety of Search Party in just five days, starting on November 21 and ending on Black Friday. (It’ll reair in Parks and Rec–style pairs starting Sunday at 11 p.m.) If premiering the show the week of Thanksgiving seemed odd, then airing two new episodes on Thanksgiving itself seemed almost magnificently careless. But this isn’t 1977, or even 2015, and yesterday’s middle finger is today’s setup for success.

That’s because while Search Party’s holiday-week sprint is arguably an afterthought, it’s definitely not a traditional burn-off. TBS isn’t trying to make room for its high-priority shows; it’s essentially redirecting viewers to streaming, where TBS made all 10 episodes available to watch last Monday. In the life cycle of today’s television, so-called “linear” viewing — i.e., watching things at the time and in the sequence networks tell us to — still comes first, because advertising is still how networks make the bulk of their money. For networks, streaming is an increasingly important afterlife, but just that: an afterlife. Search Party smashes together these previously distinct evolutionary stages, creating a viewing experience that feels more in line with what viewers want, both from television as a whole and this time of year in particular. Nothing sounds better on Thanksgiving than curling up far away from a live-action Facebook argument and losing yourself in a mystery with a satisfying payoff, and that’s exactly what Search Party offered us.

That release strategy is cribbed directly from Netflix, Amazon, and other designated disruptors of The Way We Watch TV Now. Armed with reams of data about how much media we consume and when, streaming services were the first to figure out that convention had created a massive black hole in people’s media diets. And free from having to worry about ratings or the need to assemble an elaborate, interdependent programming slate, they were also perfectly positioned to fill said black hole. It’s not that we didn’t want to watch TV over Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or summer break. Quite the opposite: It’s exactly when demand for something to do with our free time is highest, hence the Making a Murderer phenomenon. It’s just that broadcast TV wasn’t meeting that demand. Search Party is the latest attempt to do that — except, unlike any of those shows, it’s brought to us by a traditional network.

This isn’t the first time TBS has tinkered with its delivery system. Steve and Nancy Carrell’s Angie Tribeca, too, was “burned off” in a much-hyped, 25-hour marathon of its first season in January. It was a promotional stunt, sure, but it served a similar function to Search Party’s run: get the whole season out there so viewers could find the complete show on demand — clearly where TBS expected a slapstick cop spoof to find the lion’s share of its audience. Season 2 premiered just a few months later, and on a more traditional schedule, to similar ratings. But just like Netflix, TBS is betting on Angie as a catalog addition as much as a broadcast show, and just like Netflix, that math is more ambiguous and less transparent. We don’t know how many people watched Angie Tribeca in the weeks or months after that premiere, and we won’t know that number for Search Party either. Together, the two shows make up a fascinating experiment, and one whose outcome won’t be immediately clear: Can TBS be a streaming network while it’s still being a network network?

It’s an unorthodox question, and it takes an unorthodox guy to ask it. Since 2014, TBS has been under the leadership of Kevin Reilly in his capacity as chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment. (He’s also the president of TBS and its sister network, TNT.) Reilly has a reputation for vision and experimentation: He’s the man who green-lit 30 Rock at NBC and temporarily ditched the wasteful, inefficient “pilot season” system of development at Fox. At TBS, he’s led a comedy-centric rebrand, one that’s also given us Wyatt Cenac’s People of Earth, Jason Jones’s The Detour, and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. Reilly is as aware that you probably associate TBS with Family Guy reruns as he is that reruns are no longer a viable survival strategy, so he’s pivoted toward original series that can give TBS an identity of its own the way Mad Men and Breaking Bad turned AMC from classic movie channel to prestige arbiter. And because Reilly is working with a roster of sitcoms, it makes sense that TBS’s Don Draper looks a lot like Maeby Fünke.

Though Reilly has hedged by estimating the overhaul will take “the better part of three years” and yield “modest” ratings at first, it’s already yielded some successes — just not necessarily traditional ones. Full Frontal, for example, draws just three-quarters of a million live viewers a week, though that number more than quadruples in delayed viewing. But as long as it’s rocking a cool 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and the unanimous Twitterati praise that number represents, TBS doesn’t mind. It’s a calculus associated more with streaming and premium cable than an advertiser-supported basic-cable channel.

Two shows, one less than two weeks old, do not a sample size make. However inconclusive the experiment’s results, though, TBS is making an admirably good-faith effort to change along with its audience. Search Party may or may not go down as a game changer, but it’s made clear the burn-off is no longer an insult.