The Slow Death of the Binge Release

As streaming services such as HBO Max tilt back toward older conventions, the all-at-once strategy pioneered by Netflix may find itself out of fashion.

HBO Max's new shows will mimic the release strategy for series such as 'Succession,' with episodes coming out weekly rather than all at once. (Zach Dilgard / HBO)

WarnerMedia’s presentation of its upcoming streaming service, HBO Max, was a world removed from the bespoke, glitzy, celebrity-studded demonstration of Apple TV+, or the focused, family-friendly package being offered by Disney’s new streaming service. When it launches in May, HBO Max will be a massive, brute-force catalog of films, classic TV, and new shows, a genuine Netflix competitor that will be sold on the back of WarnerMedia’s most respected HBO brand. But while so much of what it’s offering is new, its TV programming will be presented in a very conventional format: that is, week to week, the opposite of Netflix’s binge-release format.

When Netflix started distributing original television, in 2012, it upended a fundamental notion of the medium by putting entire seasons online all at once, letting viewers consume episodes at their own pace. As a subscription-only service, Netflix is primarily concerned with adding and keeping paying viewers every month, and the binge model means there’s no sense of an ending, no grand “season finale” for every show to build to before it disappears for months. There’s just more content, more shows, week after week, many of them with the kind of meandering, spaced-out plotting that’s become a hallmark of the streaming era.

HBO Max won’t be doing that. Though WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey has ruffled feathers since taking charge of the company after AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, in many senses he’s sticking to tradition. On October 29, he rolled out the details of HBO Max in an hours-long presentation, a year after taking control of the company and demanding that executives dramatically step up the number of shows being produced. Yes, HBO Max will not carry the same prestige sheen as its forebear, ordering original series such as a sequel to Gossip Girl and a fresh take on the DC Comics hero Green Lantern. But those new shows, and many others, will come out weekly and try to build buzz the old-fashioned way.

They aren’t the only ones. Apple TV+, which launched on November 1, splashily dropped three episodes for big programs such as The Morning Show and See on day one, but the tech giant is otherwise mostly releasing new shows week to week. Disney+, which goes live on November 12, will do the same, pushing out episodes of its glitzy new Star Wars show, The Mandalorian, one at a time. This is partly out of necessity—some of these new services don’t have the deep bench of new shows that Netflix does, and so spreading out its original programming will give subscribers more reason to keep paying up.

A healthy archive, which everyone but Apple boasts, can help supplement that dearth of original content. Disney+ isn’t just selling itself on The Mandalorian; it also has a trove of Disney animated classics, Marvel movies, and National Geographic Channel documentaries, presented with the whole family in mind for $7 a month. Likewise, HBO Max will be overflowing with items from WarnerMedia’s past. On top of HBO classics such as The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Sex and the City, the Warner brand also includes shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Friends, the prestigious Studio Ghibli collection, and the many cinematic iterations of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman over the years.

Unlike Disney and Apple, HBO is coming with a heftier price tag: $15 a month, more than Netflix (which bills $13 for its standard package) and much more than Disney+ or Apple TV+ (which is $5 a month). The calculation for Stankey is an easy one: $15 a month is what an online subscription to HBO costs now, and why wouldn’t those customers stick around at the same price for an even deeper library of content? Along with existing hit HBO properties such as Succession, the network is looking to plumb its past wherever possible, rapidly ordering a spin-off of Game of Thrones to series (though sequels and reboots were never part of the HBO Emmy-juggernaut brand).

“Twice the content for the same price? I’ve had much more difficult marketing propositions to sell in the market than that,” Stankey told CNBC. “I have a great deal of confidence that there is probably people who look at that and say, ‘There’s enough in there for me that I probably want to get into that.’” He’s likely right—by porting over HBO’s existing subscribers, the company will have enough of a base to gain a foothold in a busy streaming market. The question then becomes whether its more conservative release strategy will stick.

Netflix, for one, is largely sticking to the binge release, though there have been a couple of recent cracks in the company’s orthodoxy. New episodes of The Great British Baking Show came out week to week (rather than all at once after the show concluded airing in Britain), perhaps to discourage viewers from pirating the episodes online. Another competition show, Rhythm + Flow, has also been presented weekly, to avoid spoiling the winner. Still, that’s a far cry from a wholesale change in strategy.

For now, Netflix will stand pat, confident that it doesn’t need to get word-of-mouth attention by capitulating to old models of TV distribution. But a recent comment by Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, about HBO’s Succession felt unintentionally telling. “If I liked the show a little bit less, I’d probably burn out on it. Because I get aggravated every week waiting for the next episode,” he said after the company’s latest earnings statement. That’s how TV has worked for decades: If the shows are good enough, they’re worth waiting for. Netflix has tried to break that system, but Sarandos seemed to be tacitly admitting that some of his company’s programs wouldn’t stand up to that weekly scrutiny. As online broadcasting tilts back toward older conventions, Netflix could find itself struggling to stand out in a thicker herd.