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Christmas Is Streaming TV’s Super Bowl

Streaming services have figured out the perfect time to spring would-be hits on captive audiences

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

“What do I watch over the break?” is an evergreen question with an ever-changing answer. We’ve been taking in the same Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special for over 50 years, but it’s been joined over time by new standbys like Freeform-née–ABC Family’s Harry Potter marathons. (Treasure them while you can.) Then came the streaming guides, bulwark of the booming content industry. And then, to our collective surprise, we found ourselves spending the vacation debating the due process of a long-incarcerated Wisconsinite. A new normal was upon us, and it looked a lot like Netflix’s Making a Murderer: the ready-for-the-holidays, brand-new original series.

As we prepare to entomb ourselves in our loved ones’ sectionals, we can look forward to another way — besides eating and political debates — to use up this yawning expanse of free time. Call it the streaming Super Bowl: the time when all the internet services take advantage of comatose viewers and launch their original programming into the wild. The curious viewer can dive into The OA, inhaling eight hours of unapologetically out-there sci-fi. After that, they can hop over to Sense8 to find out what a Wachowski sisters Christmas special looks like. They can submit themselves to The Man in the High Castle, exorcising postelection anxieties with some hardcore immersion therapy. Or they can escape into Mozart in the Jungle, a featherweight comedy that demands nothing but an appreciation for Bernadette Peters and classical music. And for children and/or horror buffs, there’s Trollhunters, Guillermo del Toro’s new animated Netflix show. Maybe you still haven’t caught up on Gilmore Girls, which was Netflix’s Thanksgiving release. For a time of year that television has traditionally ceded to movies, those are more options than we’re used to.

After “week-by-week release strategy” and “stand-alone episodes,” the latest piece of conventional wisdom streaming television has placed under attack is “traditional scheduling.” Historically, television is the venue of routine, providing regularly scheduled viewing for time spent at home, in need of distraction. Apart from the occasional Yule Log or Charlie Brown rerun, television used to take a backseat during event seasons like Christmas or summer vacation, when people were more likely to leave the house for the beach, or the multiplex, or their mother-in-law’s house. This was the way of the world, all on the assumption networks were responding to a lack of demand, not ignoring the presence of one.

Or at least it was until last year, when a show came out of nowhere to prove that defense lawyers can be unlikely sex symbols, TV can make a difference, and late December doesn’t have to be a dead zone. Making a Murderer didn’t technically come out over the holidays; that was just when it took off. Netflix semi-quietly released its 10-part true-crime documentary from first-time codirectors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi on December 18, 2015. The saga of the potential framing and judicial railroading of Wisconsin man Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey garnered positive-enough reviews upon initial release — just nothing that indicated the phenomenon it would become. According to streaming-ratings company Symphony Advanced Media, though, the show’s audience crescendoed more than two weeks after that, jumping from 2.3 million viewers per episode after seven days to 5.5 million after 15 to 19.3 million after 35. (Netflix, of course, doesn’t corroborate ratings from third parties.) One of the pitfalls of streaming is that a show’s buzz tends to burn twice as brightly for about a twelfth as long, dominating a weekend or two of coverage before everyone’s binge is complete. Making a Murderer defied that trend, and it had everything to do with its timing: It dropped when its audience was cooped up, restless, and itching for something to seize on.

This strategy doesn’t necessarily guarantee eyeballs; Mozart in the Jungle released its second season on December 30 last year — the year before that, its first season had come just two days before Christmas — and the only people who seemed to notice were members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. And on Netflix, Bill Burr’s animated Archie Bunker take, F Is for Family, debuted the very same day as Making a Murderer with minimal impact. Straightforward fluff, it seems, isn’t as suited to the holiday lift as knottier fare. And it can’t keep up with precision-targeted fluff that hits our nostalgia centers right when we’re in our childhood homes and most prone to reminiscing about Stars Hollow and/or the syndication fodder of our youth.

The streaming Super Bowl comes at the holidays in large part because only streaming can take advantage of that particularly narrow window of attention by releasing shows that can be processed in days rather than weeks. But it’s not just logistics that made streaming the common-sense venue for holiday entertainment — it’s also precedent. Networks have been opting out of the holidays for years now, presumably because they have large research departments that realized serialized TV wasn’t the optimal use of a late-December programming schedule. Or it could be because networks couldn’t compete with the glut of Christmas-release blockbusters and Oscar contenders, which still drew people to movie theaters even five years ago. (Remember Avatar?) Maybe the glut of live sports — NBA-owned Christmas Day, the College Football Playoff, and the still-mostly-a-draw NFL — persuaded networks to ease off. Or maybe viewers weren’t as inclined to the appointment-based viewing that serial network television still requires. (The holidays come with plenty of freedom, but they’re punctuated with all-important gathering times. No wonder make-your-own-schedule TV is so appealing right around now.) In any case, the streaming services saw an opportunity to cut out the middleman, then seized on it.

Observing a gap is only half the work; the next question is what to fill it with. While there isn’t much surface similarity between MaM’s criminal-justice exposé and The OA’s new-age spin on paranormal mystery, a common structure nonetheless lies beneath: creepy, strange, the kind of show people watch quickly and talk about on message boards for a good, long time. Netflix seems to think that slow-burn narratives, the ones most likely to spread via word of mouth, work best in this spot — like a real-life mystery in the age of Serial, or something for the obsessives to chew on and obsess over in Westworld’s wake. (This applies to The OA and Man in the High Castle as well as Sense8, which is airing a Christmas special in advance of its second season in May. Even the imports fall in line: Netflix is posting Canadian time-travel series Travelers on December 23.)

Given that a compressed viewing period only heightens the satisfaction of an intensely serialized story we can start and finish in a day, the thinking holds up. There’s also the matter of reception. No network, streaming included, is going to launch its would-be critical darlings when all the critics are on vacation; there’s a reason Fleabag and The Crown came a few months ago. Shows meant to be carried by viewer hype in spite of critical indifference, though? That’s The OA in a nutshell. A late-December show won’t land on any year-end lists, which were likely published weeks before, and it’s not designed to. Instead, it makes its appeal directly to the audience.

It’s possible the holidays will soon be as overcrowded and resistant to breakouts as the rest of the year is; after all, the Mayor of Television (that’d be FX chief John Landgraf) says we still haven’t reached the peak of Peak TV. For now, though, streaming platforms have found a showcase. The broadcast season doesn’t officially start for another few weeks, when winter series like Doubt and Making History will compete in an only slightly downsized version of the September Thunderdome. The streaming service is always on, and it doesn’t take breaks — especially not at Christmas.