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2021 Was the Year Binge-Watching Took a Back Seat to Weekly TV

Binge culture has reigned for nearly a decade, and last year’s quarantines only added to its popularity. But in 2021, weekly TV reminded us all of its appeal.

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2020, one could argue, was the year of the binge. The practice of platforms releasing entire seasons of television at once, and audiences consuming them in hours-long bursts, was almost a decade old by the time the pandemic struck. But with the onset of lockdown, the average subscriber had more time than ever to watch TV—and in the absence of dining out or travel, often more disposable income, too.

The effect was obvious in the numbers. Netflix, the company that popularized the binge watch and remains its most ardent evangelist, added 37 million subscribers in 2020, a record figure that pushed its global tally past the 200 million mark. Wall Street responded accordingly, boosting the share price by roughly two-thirds over the course of the year. But there were less tangible signs, too. With productions on hiatus, competitors without Netflix’s scale of output conserved their resources, allowing the streamer to dominate a zeitgeist less crowded by competition from other services. Titles like Bridgerton, The Queen’s Gambit, The Crown, and, of course, Tiger King surged to the forefront, packaged in blocks and raced through in sprints.

In 2021, though, that momentum has slowed. Netflix remains a powerhouse, but the juggernaut success of Squid Game served as a needed win rather than a grace note, capping off a year of slowed subscriber growth and dwindling enthusiasm on the part of investors. Those developments have something to do with Netflix’s own reduced output as the pandemic finally caught up with its production schedule, but they also reflect increased activity from its peers as delayed projects finally made it to air. Yet the shifts in streaming this year weren’t just in what was released, or by whom. They were also a matter of how—and on what schedule—new series were rolled out to viewers.

As one of the biggest, and earliest, platforms to establish itself in the space, Netflix made streaming synonymous with the binge watch, and vice versa. Linear TV may have marathons, but the on-demand, time-flexible nature of streaming makes it easier to burn through chapter after chapter of a serialized narrative. Over time, those narratives were even structured with bingeing in mind, with less of an emphasis on episodic structure and more on the overarching story. Often, streaming series are “crafted in a very strategic way to keep us viewing episode after episode, and distributed on platforms in a very strategic way to keep us viewing episode after episode,” says Bridget Rubenking, an associate professor of film and mass media at the University of Central Florida and the co-author of a book on binge watching. If you’ve ever had Netflix autoplay a new episode, you’ve experienced that strategy firsthand.

But lately, some services—including, on occasion, Netflix itself—have started to decouple streaming from the binge. After The Falcon and the Winter Soldier got pushed back from a 2020 premiere, Marvel Studios released four wildly popular shows on Disney+, each releasing at least some of their episodes week to week. Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, like many Hulu releases before it, employed what might be called a “demi-binge” strategy, debuting with a batch of three episodes, then airing the remaining seven one at a time. (Apple TV+ has also used this approach with series like Dickinson and Physical.) Meanwhile, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max has landed on a hybrid approach, breaking seasons of Hacks, FBoy Island, Love Life, and The Other Two into batches of two or three, drawn out over several weeks. And for its upcoming fourth season, Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel will switch from releasing all eight episodes at once to two a week for four weeks.

In the aggregate, these anecdotes add up. According to Parrot Analytics, a research firm that evaluates perceived “demand” for releases using behaviors like torrenting and social engagement, of the 50 most popular new titles this year, a striking 62 percent used some kind of weekly release—up dramatically from 30 percent in 2020 and 32 percent in 2019. That trend echoes a surge in viewer popularity; two-thirds of the top 50 new shows demanded by audiences this year employed a weekly rollout, more than doubling the total from 2020.

The binge watch is in no danger of dying off. Netflix remains a force, and even platforms that avoid the binge model for some releases deploy it for others. Disney+ more or less dropped all eight hours of Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back, divided into three parts over three consecutive days; HBO Max will release the final season of Search Party in its entirety on January 7. And those are just new series, which don’t include the massive, bingeable catalogs—Friends on HBO Max; The Office on Peacock—considered so important to platforms that some have organized their price tiers around them. It would be too simple to argue that bingeing is on its way out, or that the weekly release is regaining the upper hand after a few years in the wilderness. Rather, 2021 might go down as a different kind of inflection point: the year we collectively realized binge and weekly models aren’t mutually exclusive, or even a binary choice.

“We don’t employ a one-size-fits all approach,” writes Meredith Gertler, executive vice president of content strategy and planning at HBO and HBO Max, in an emailed statement. “We have the flexibility to develop a unique strategy per series to best meet the customers where they are. Some of our series lend themselves to bingeing, while others are better suited to consume over time.”

That flexibility is useful, in part because the two templates serve slightly different purposes for their distributors. A particularly buzzy binge release can serve as an effective draw for new subscribers; after Squid Game exploded into a worldwide hit, Netflix beat quarterly projections for new signups. But since bingeing allows viewers to burn through an entire season in mere days, or even hours, the peak of a bingeable show’s relevance tends to come fast. With a weekly release, there’s a fresh infusion of new material for an extended period of time—which, in turn, incentivizes customers to stick around and keep paying their monthly fees.

The retention aspect of the weekly release is especially important in light of streaming’s recent expansion. From late 2019 to early 2021, the industry saw no fewer than five major launches: Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, and Paramount+. Some were technically rebrands of preexisting platforms; HBO Max grew out of HBO Now, while Paramount+ is a build-out of CBS All Access. Still, each represents a major increase in output, creating more competition for time, attention, and, ultimately, money. They don’t just have to entice consumers to try them out; they also have to keep them engaged, avoiding the dreaded phenomenon of churn, in which existing subscribers opt out of a service.

These escalating rivalries are evident in a breakdown of Parrot’s top 50 new releases by platform, which show a shrinking share apportioned to Netflix and a marked increase from other platforms, especially Disney+ (buoyed by Marvel) and Peacock (boosted, if not as dramatically, by The Office). But the evening out is also, intuitively, somewhat obvious. Disney all but sat out 2020, only to turn out four high-profile series in the space of a year; HBO Max may have launched in the early days of quarantine, but major debuts like The Flight Attendant and Gossip Girl were held back for months. In 2021, the floodgates are open—and almost every non-Netflix entrant makes substantial use of the weekly release.

Over-the-top platforms, a catchall term for TV distributed over the internet, “have to think about their strategies in this new market where there’s even more streamers now than there were in 2020,” says Renee Engelhardt, Parrot’s global partner insights director. “It’s a new game now that we are almost at peak saturation. Platforms now have to think about retaining their subscribers, more so than potentially acquiring new subscribers.” Enter the weekly release, which can maximize the impact of a particular title by drawing it out over multiple months.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean “weekly” in the most traditional sense. The batch or demi-binge technique can be especially useful for streamers’ desired effect. “A lot of times, one episode is not enough to get an audience engaged to remind them to come back again for the following week,” Engelhardt notes. “So I think it’s actually a really smart strategy from platforms to implement the hybrid approach,” combining the addictive hook of a binge with the recurring draw of a weekly show.

Even Netflix has backed off its insistence on binge exclusivity, at least in some cases. The Great British Baking Show airs week-to-week, though that’s largely due to co-distributor Channel 4 and the risk of spoilers once episodes air in the U.K. But even Netflix-native reality competitions like The Circle and Rhythm + Flow break their seasons into parts. “Especially in the past year, we’ve seen reality content take off on streaming services to a greater degree than we had previously,” says Rubenking, who conducted a survey of college students’ pandemic viewing habits that was recently submitted for peer review. “What was cool about that is that [streaming services] changed their distribution pattern” for those shows, making them “more similar to traditional TV viewing.”

A weekly release also allows new shows to build word-of-mouth, reducing the possibility they’ll get lost in the deluge. HBO Max’s Gertler cites the Mindy Kaling sitcom The Sex Lives of College Girls, a critical darling the executive says grew week-to-week, ultimately boosting its viewership by 76 percent from its premiere on November 18 to its finale on December 9. (The show was recently picked up for a second season.) For viewers and platforms alike, that’s what makes the resurgence of weekly as much a reprieve as a market shift. There’s still as much TV as ever, and more by the day; now, at least, there’s room for shows to breathe, and time for the rest of us to catch up.

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