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To Binge or Not to Binge—That Is the Question

Just as Netflix disrupted TV’s traditional release format, Apple TV+’s and Disney+’s models have recently prompted a reconsideration of the value of binge-watching. With the Streaming Wars in full effect, two TV critics discuss the full-season dump, the linear release, and what the tug-of-war between the two will mean for the future of television.

Alycea Tinoyan

More than five years ago, Netflix upended half a century’s worth of calendar drafts, scheduling wizardry, and carefully assembled programming blocs by throwing caution to the wind and unleashing entire seasons of its scripted shows at once. Subscribers’ natural response to this incredible flex—a preview of the rapidly approaching days when Netflix would have enough material to casually toss off releases instead of extending them over the better part of a calendar year—came to be known as the “binge,” the act of gulping down hours of television in a sitting at any time, not just when a network deemed appropriate.

Binging has subsequently reshaped entertainment; a recent BuzzFeed essay looking back on the 2010s goes so far as to argue it has reshaped our sense of time itself. But as influential as services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have been, they’re now facing down a new crop of equally well-financed competition, while the prestige cable stalwarts that kick-started this whole arms race have proved more resilient than some may have thought. As the TV landscape seems poised for yet another seismic shift, it’s possible that upheavals at the top will once again trickle down to the everyday reality of how, and what, we watch.

As the decade closes and the Streaming Wars loom, The Ringer’s resident TV critics convened for a summit on the rise of the binge, the prematurely reported death of the linear release, and what the tug-of-war between the two has meant and will mean for the medium.

Alison Herman: Good morning, Miles! I’m writing you from the tragic end of a thoroughly relaxing weekend, much of which I spent consuming content. But where, over the past five years, I’ve grown accustomed to using my leisure time shotgunning the latest streaming show, I found myself watching—gasp!—actual stand-alone episodes, many of them on streaming. (I’d already devoured The Crown thanks to #screenerprivilege, freeing up some time in my schedule.) I cooed over Baby Yoda on The Mandalorian. I cackled at Billy Crudup on The Morning Show. And over on HBO, I got to indulge in that rarest of activities: in-depth discussion of a thought-provoking hour of television, courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen. All of which got me wondering—is weekly viewing making a comeback? And is the binge model, if not on the way out, slightly past its peak?

As critics, we’re in the strange position of both binge-watching much more frequently than the average viewer while also loudly decrying the shortcomings of the binge. We may be professionally obligated to consume hours of TV at a time, but we’re also in a unique position to notice and articulate how binging tends to erode the episode as an art form, compress conversation around a show into days rather than months, and otherwise encourage the siloing of what was once a collective experience into millions of personalized ecosystems. Half a decade into the Netflix era, those positions haven’t changed. What’s different is that market forces seem to be incentivizing certain contenders in the Streaming Wars to get on our page, making the dynamic slightly more complicated than “disrupting upstart against tired old broadcast networks.” Why would Apple burn off its marquee series in one go when it can hook us on a steady IV drip of Jennifer Aniston monologues? Why would Disney give us eight hours of Star Wars when it can induce a Pavlovian response to Werner Herzog interacting with a puppet? Meanwhile, Netflix has slowly backed off its all-binge policy with unscripted releases like Patriot Act, Rhythm + Flow, and the now in-house Great British Baking Show.

From one observer of megacorporations melding art and commerce to another, I have a few questions. Is it too late in the binge era to turn the tides? Are Apple, Disney, and HBO fighting a losing battle (if it’s even possible for multiple trillions of dollars in market valuation to lose)? And what do you, personally, think of the “binge vs. linear” binary?

I’ve given you a lot to think about. While you mull it over, I’m gonna go watch this Sweeney Todd duet on a loop.

Miles Surrey: It’s impossible to be totally impartial on this divide, especially when certain binge releases all but demand you toss everything aside and give them your undivided attention. Remember when Stranger Things took over both of our lives for about a week in the summer, and the discourse around the series completely dissipated like 10 days later? As someone who enjoys the discussion around shows almost as much as the experience of viewing them, 2019 has provided compelling evidence that weekly viewing appointments have the sort of hype-generating power that even the most popular shows of the binge model can’t replicate—particularly in the long run.

As you’ve covered on the site, Game of Thrones was our last piece of TV monoculture. For the six weeks it was airing this spring, Thrones was pretty much all anybody was talking about—even if we were just collectively dunking on the final season’s haphazard storytelling and sharing dank Bran Stark memes. But while nothing’s grabbed the zeitgeist quite like Thrones, other releases have had enough weekly anticipation to be genuine watercooler shows. The Mandalorian notwithstanding, think about how HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries sustained interest and steadily grew its audience into the finale, or how inescapable Succession’s second season became on certain corners of Twitter. (And if we want to go back another year, Killing Eve’s first season had a ridiculous run growing its weekly viewership, too.) I don’t doubt The Mandalorian would’ve been a huge deal regardless of how it was released on Disney+; we’re talking about the first live-action Star Wars series. But like clockwork, the past two Fridays have blessed us with a new flood of Baby Yoda memes, and articles considering the little guy’s place in the Star Wars canon that wouldn’t be possible if the whole series was dumped all at once.

Granted, “shows that air new episodes weekly might get more attention than 10 episodes dropping on a Friday” seems like an obvious thing to point out, but it’s important to remember certain shows do get a wider appeal when they’re available to binge. The “Netflix effect” rather infamously boosted Breaking Bad, but to a lesser extent it’s also helped something like The Good Place—given its propensity for cliff-hangers and plot twists, that might be one series people prefer to binge. But with streaming shows having such a small window to grab your attention, the benefits of a Good Place Netflix bump don’t outweigh the Tuca & Berties of the world that inevitably get lost in the shuffle.

This is a roundabout way to say that, yes, I do want more weekly viewing shows and think it’s a better experience—and not just because of the strain binge releases have on our professional lives. What say you, Alison?

Herman: I’m so glad you brought up Succession, if only because it’s very much in the spirit of that show to dunk on multi-multimillionaires. Last month, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos became the star of a relatively gentle Twitter roast for arguing that Succession’s weekly release actually hurts the show, encouraging less enamored viewers to simply stop watching rather than wait seven whole days for a new episode. As someone who once counted herself among the Succession skeptical—forgive me, Logan Roy, for I have sinned—I would (and have!) argue that a weekly release is hugely important to a polarizing show finding its audience. Rather than simply give up in the face of a 10-hour mass of infighting, Succession broke itself into more digestible pieces that allowed the audience to tune into its deliciously toxic frequency. I think Jesse Armstrong wouldn’t have an Emmy on his mantle right now if Succession were on Netflix; I know I wouldn’t still be watching, no matter how fervent our colleagues’ praise.

For an inverse scenario, look no further than Netflix’s own Tuca & Bertie, which I’m sure you mentioned as a kindness in my time of grief, but I’ll seize on it as an example of how binging often doesn’t give a show the room it needs to find a foothold. Lisa Hanawalt’s anthropomorphic fantasia, similar in aesthetic to BoJack Horseman but much loopier and more visceral in its sensibility, was canceled mere months after its 10-episode first season debuted on the service. (Hanawalt would later share on her podcast that she’d gotten the news before her promotional appearances were even done coming out.) Were Tuca airing on a more traditional network or even a different streaming service, the season wouldn’t even have been done airing by the time of its cancellation. On Netflix, its very existence was already written off—despite a psychedelic story about female friendship between birds being the very kind of show that could use time and savvy marketing to catch on.

To play my own devil’s advocate, though, binge watching is undeniably convenient, and it’s hard to write off the liberation of television from hard-and-fast time slots because of high-minded concerns from a handful of coastal elites. (That’d be us.) Is it possible the Apple and Hulu model—a three-episode mini-binge followed by a weekly release—is a worthy compromise? Are there more options beyond a simple binary of firehose and breadcrumbs?

Surrey: I’m definitely in favor of that three-episode/weekly release model—motion to call it the quasi-binge until we think of something better?—and I believe it largely benefits shows. (Even The Mandalorian seemed to get a tangible boost by having its first two episodes come out within a few days of one another; the second one just lets Baby Yoda cook after we’d fallen in love with his cute green face.) As Alan Sepinwall pointed out back in 2017, the era of Peak TV means viewers don’t have as much patience to wait for a show to “get good” after six episodes, especially when most people might have around a dozen series waiting in their queue.

Having three episodes of a show available to binge at once could be a fair compromise, and in these chaotic streaming times, a good-enough litmus test to base a decision on. Some series have definitely suffered from adhering to the binge model. I know I’m probably one of five people who actually watched it, but I’ll never forgive Amazon for releasing Too Old to Die Young all at once; it would’ve been great for the quasi-binge! There are always going to be exceptions to the rule—I felt my recent experience bingeing seasons of The Expanse and Mr. Robot, for example, was surprisingly more effective than weekly viewing appointments. But the quasi-binge model could be a lawful good for TV viewers trying to keep up with the constant content churn.

Even if Netflix doesn’t change its approach—they don’t disclose a lot about their viewing metrics, so it’s hard to gauge when, if ever, it’ll go into panic mode—the fact that the company’s newest competitors in the Streaming Wars may prefer to go with the quasi-binge at least offers some diversity of thought. And who knows, if critics seem to largely prefer this sort of release model, who’s to say everyone else wouldn’t be along for the ride?

Herman: I, too, have found myself accidentally appreciating a more conventional release in binge form, an occupational hazard that nonetheless yields revealing insights into which shows fit with which release model. My go-to example for this is Sharp Objects, an elliptical, impressionistic portrait of a woman quite literally poisoned by her hometown. I took in seven dreamy, oblique episodes in a few days and found them enchanting. Everyone else got a murder mystery stretched out over two months—that was also uninterested in being a murder mystery—and balked. It was the anti-Succession, a show done a disservice by stretching itself thin.

You also mentioned so-called “Netflix bump” recipients like Breaking Bad and The Good Place (and You, a Lifetime show so boosted by a second life on Netflix it actually became a Netflix production between seasons 1 and 2). Fixed constants like convenience and a massive subscriber base surely played a role in these phenomena, but I also don’t think it’s a coincidence these specific shows have become poster children for what streaming can do. A New Mexico crime thriller and a cerebral sitcom about the afterlife are about as different as two series can get, but they’re also serialized and plot-driven in a way that makes it impossible to resist the siren song of the “next episode” button.

Pitching shows and programming them isn’t nearly as simple as just deciding whether a show is a better binge or slow burn and booking it accordingly. Then again, maybe it is? Apple TV+ made the perplexing decision to drop Dickinson’s 10 episodes all in one go, even as it paces out a tougher sell like For All Mankind. But even if the specifics aren’t right, it’s possible the principle of matching a show to a format, rather than forcing it to conform to a universal house style, is. Let’s all just hold hands, get along, and plunge into this brave new world of on-demand viewing, shall we?

Surrey: Hard agree. The last thing we need is another major disruption from the status quo. Which is to say: When the Marvel Cinematic Universe eventually gets in on the streaming action, we do not need Disney+ to pull a Bandersnatch and turn This Is Hawkeye into a choose-your-own-adventure where the greatest Easter egg of them all is unlocking Jeremy Renner’s newest hit single.

If I accidentally willed this horrifying concept into existence, I give Thanos permission to rapture me with the snap of his fingers.