Awhile back, after a long day of writing about TV shows, I plopped down on my couch to watch a TV show. Not just any show, mind you, but “Difficult People,” Hulu’s new comedy from the brilliant mind of Julie Klausner (with a little help from co-star Billy Eichner and producer Amy Poehler). It had been a few weeks since the series debuted, and — despite an excellent review in the can from my editor Liz Shannon Miller — I had yet to get into one of my most anticipated summer shows.
Then it happened. After three delightful episodes about the never-ending, impenetrable love between best friends — via the deserved verbal abuse of others — suddenly I was watching a rerun of “The Mindy Project.” Veteran Hulu viewers know what this means, yet I was reluctant to admit defeat: How could I be out of episodes already? It had only been 90 minutes. Surely there had been some mistake.
Yet despite my status as a savvy television critic, reporter and constant observer of the boob tube, somehow I’d forgotten Hulu’s new release strategy for its original programming. Rather than dump every episode of a new season all at once (as they did in the past), the NBC Universal subsidiary is releasing new episodes every week, just like the broadcast networks for which Hulu streams reruns.
The Misguided Attempt to Resurrect “Water Cooler TV”
The recent change in strategy came as a surprise to most industry trackers, when it was announced last month at Hulu’s TCA presentation. After following the Netflix model of releasing full seasons at once, suddenly Hulu was going “back” to a weekly schedule — and by “back,” I mean back in time. Despite an upcoming slate of original programming that finally looks capable to compete creatively with Netflix — “Casual” from Jason Reitman, “11/22/63” from J.J. Abrams and “The Way” from Jason Katims are the heavyweights — Hulu decided to handcuff itself as a destination for modern television by releasing their shows like broadcast networks of yesteryear.
The simple question becomes, “Why?” It’s certainly not for the reason given by Hulu Content Chief Craig Erwich at the TCAs. “We want to give viewers the opportunity to discover their shows every week,” Erwich said. “We value the shared experience and the joy of the water-cooler that is television.”
It’s a statement that sounds good — especially to creative folk who love breaking down the intricacies of TV shows on an episode-by-episode basis — and is tossed around often. But it’s not true. As much as executives (and select fans) want appointment TV viewing to reemerge as the medium’s standard, there have been few signs of life from the stubborn networks that tried. Though none of the streaming services are releasing ratings, engagement can be tracked in other ways; namely, in the same way the general public unconsciously tracks other television: through discussion. And discussion, chatter, buzz or whatever you want to call it has been low to non-existent for digital series released weekly.
“Between,” the only Netflix series to release one episode per week, disappeared from the radar as fast as the 21-and-older citizens in its fictional town. That drop-off, though, could be explained by the series’ mixed reviews and Canadian roots. Yet shows with more going for them should still perform better than they do, like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedian in Cars Getting Coffee.”. Despite celebrity guests, free viewing and an onslaught of publicity because it stars Jerry “Seinfeld” Seinfeld, the docu-series generates little to no conversation in the culture at large.
The most prevalent example, though, comes with “Community.” After years of speculation about the cult favorite series getting canceled, it got the boot from NBC only to be quickly revived by Yahoo. Fan adulation was fervent at the time, yet somehow cooled between the renewal announcement and series’ release. On our end, any news pegged to “Community” Season 6 was met with the social media version of a shrug. News of an unlikely Season 7 was given a similar virtual reaction, and it seemed the show had finally peaked as part of the cultural milieu.
None of this is to say the weekly release strategy doesn’t work for the networks. “Community” could still be getting gangbuster viewing numbers for Yahoo, but it doesn’t seem to be as appealing to viewers. The “why” surrounding “Community’s” sudden downswing in popularity can’t be tied to reviews — which were largely positive — or word of mouth, as the group made consistent appearances on behalf of the show and Yahoo forked out the big bucks in large ad spends. It seemed connected to the distribution. For the first time, fans didn’t know how or when to watch their show, or — to be fair to Yahoo’s efforts — they didn’t want to watch them in weekly chunks.
In response to this slight against their plans, executives are also quick to point out that those who want to binge shows can still do so. They just have to wait until all the episodes are out. But that can take anywhere from eight to 13 weeks, and considering most advertisements, news reports and reviews are scheduled to coincide with the release of Episode 1, many viewers may completely forget about a show they set aside to binge watch. (A result multiple die-hard TV fans have personally told me has happened to them.) If “Community” had been immediately binge-able, with all that marketing pushing people toward one all-encompassing premiere date, it’s hard to imagine a similar drop-off in community engagement.
The Real Reason for Weekly Releases
While most of this remains speculative without hard stats, there seems to be a more pertinent reason why networks like Hulu, Crackle and Yahoo Screen are bucking the streaming status quo: exposure. Unlike Netflix, which sports a massive subscriber base of 42 million U.S. customers, and Amazon Prime, which gains converts thanks to free two-day shipping included with Prime subscriptions, other streaming services need to draw in an audience via different methods, and weekly releases have become the predominant strategy to do just that. By releasing episodes weekly, Hulu, Crackle, Yahoo Screen and more can aim for devout fans to come back again and again over the course of a season. They’re hoping viewers will adopt a series and return to it, but more than that — they want you to adopt their network.
There’s a reason Hulu sent me straight into an episode of “The Mindy Project” rather than a message stating, “You’ve watched all the available episodes of ‘Difficult People.'” The network not only wants me to keep watching, but to know what else it has to offer. Without “Difficult People,” I may not have remembered “The Mindy Project” was now a Hulu property with a new season coming out September 15. Before that, I may not have known about “Difficult People” if I hadn’t been watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a series exclusively streaming on Hulu. I may not have known about “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” without “Modern Family,” and so on and so on.
Hulu — and Crackle, Yahoo Screen, et all — want us to watch more shows than just the one we sought out in the first place. Executives need their respective network to become a destination hub, like Netflix, where viewers go when they don’t know what else to watch. To do that, they need people to watch a half-hour of “Difficult People” and then stick around to watch a half-hour of “The Mindy Project.”
In theory, this works like another traditional TV practice: the lead-in. Similar to how broadcast and cable networks would position hot new shows to air after a proven ratings juggernauts, these streaming networks are drawing you in with something you know you want and hoping you won’t change the channel when whatever’s on next pops up.
Whether or not the practice works for a millennial audience trained to watch whatever they want whenever they want it (and reject traditional strategies like lead-ins) is up for debate. Executives can decide if the weekly release strategy is truly helping their networks. After all, they’re the ones with the stats. For those of us on this side of the TV screen, all I can say is I’ve been trying to keep up with “Difficult People.” I’m up-to-date as of today, but it’s still frustrating to log in with the hope I forgot an extra week and now I can watch two or three episodes instead of just one. Klausner’s series demands to be binge-watched, but it’s also too good for me to risk forgetting about in 10 weeks when every episode is finally available. So I’ll keep watching whenever I can remember, hoping against reason I’ll be satisfied when it’s over. Or maybe I’ll just watch something else.