At a time when the rapid rise of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming services is upending the traditional broadcast and cable TV industries (see last week’s market meltdown for more on that), Hulu is pursuing the tried-and-true, announcing at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Summer Press Tour that it would not release all of its original content for immediate binge watching. Instead, Hulu will release new episodes one at time each week, following a typical TV release schedule. So, only when the full season has run, will all episodes be available for binge watching enthusiasts.
Explaining Hulu’s decision, Craig Erwich, Hulu's SVP and Head of Content said, "We want to give viewers the opportunity to discover their favorite shows every week,. We value the shared experience and the joy of the watercooler that is television. This will also allow us to get the shows out to our audiences faster, without waiting until full series completion.”
“There is something about a show that comes out every week that provides a certain pleasurable anticipation of the next episode,” added Erwich, suggesting that the audience and the TV critics need a chance to discover and celebrate these shows.
Given the rapid rise of the non-traditional streaming services, Hulu’s decision to delay the binge watching experience can be seen as a calculated way to separate itself from its competitors and bring attention to itself. Alternatively, it could be a fruitless attempt to stem the inexorable embrace of binge watching by audiences. Research certainly suggests the wind is in Hulu’s face. TiVo recently found that 92% of its subscribers now report binge watching. Earlier this year, TV Guide said 75% of its users regularly binge watch.
Netflix, after all, is still the top draw and by continuing to release all the episodes of its originals at once (as Amazon too, is doing), it is further influencing viewers’ expectations. Clearly watching an entire season of any individual series in one (or two) sittings is the current red-hot trend. Even the broadcast nets (think summer drama “Aquarius” on NBC) are testing the concept.
But media is a cyclical business…what is “in” at one moment may be “out” the next. Importantly, there is no public proof to even support why binging on a particular series is beneficial to anyone but the viewer. While a lot of talent has been supportive of binge-viewing (though keep in mind Netflix and Amazon are writing big checks in Hollywood these days), there’s no consensus yet. For example, at a TCA session on her upcoming Hulu comedy “Casual,” Liz Tigelaar said, "For me, the problem with binge-viewing is you don't get to talk about it with anybody and watch too quickly. It's almost like overeating. You're not processing it fully. I think there's something great about being able to really digest something."
Further, the lack of any reported data to substantiate how many people are watching these streaming services series means binge watching is a black box for advertisers, with significant potential downsides. Consider how the breakout success of a show like “Empire” on Fox accentuates the value of broadcast TV’s traditional release model. By airing season one the old-fashioned way, ratings increased in each of those initial 12 episodes, giving advertisers more “bang for the buck” (and offering them the incentive to return in season two…and beyond). If Fox had instead offered all episodes of “Empire” as a binge watching alternative, it would have limited the show’s profitability.
Hulu is betting there’s still ample reason to stick with the tried-and-true nature of the TV business, catering to the audience with the right type of programming in a scheduled fashion. Despite all the hoopla, and no supporting data to support binge watching’s value, it could amount to nothing more than a passing fad. If that’s the case, Hulu’s bold move will pay-off.