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‘Veronica Mars’ to ‘The OA’: How the Surprise Release Model Impacts Show Success

Streaming platforms must take into consideration audience response when deciding how and when to release a TV show.

Veronica Mars -- "Spring Break Forever" - Episode 401 -- Panic spreads through Neptune when a bomb goes off during spring break. Veronica and Keith are hired by the wealthy family of one victim injured in the bombing to find out who is responsible. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), shown. (Photo by: Michael Desmond/Hulu)

Kristen Bell, “Veronica Mars”

Hulu

The highly-anticipated “Veronica Mars” revival season was supposed to premiere on July 26. But Hulu made a bold move and dropped all episodes one week early on July 19, revealing the news at the show’s Comic-Con panel the very minute the show was released. While the early drop created buzz in the moment, the move resulted in backlash from fans and media professionals.

The surprise drop is a unique aspect of the streaming age, one replicated from the music industry. A surprise album drop from Beyoncé, however, does not hold the same narrative responsibilities as an episode of television does. One cannot be spoiled on a plot point in music, but care must be taken when the model is utilized for TV. Hulu didn’t understand the reasoning behind why a surprise release can work, and therefore made all the wrong decisions to ensure the opposite outcome with “Veronica Mars.”

“I love a surprise release. And it was cool for people who weren’t at Comic-Con, I guess,” said “Veronica Mars” star Ryan Hansen, pointing out that the diehard fans attending the panel were the ones who couldn’t watch immediately. “So there’s pros and cons of that – because I think then you’re going to get some spoilers if you were planning on watching it later.”

Creator Rob Thomas – who’s also behind Starz’s “Party Down” and The CW’s “iZombie” – also put his faith in Hulu’s plan to release the eight-part series early. “I know nothing about marketing. I don’t know what it’s like to have a hit show. Not once in my 20-year career have I looked at the ratings and went, ‘Yay.’ It has been a lifetime of shows on the bubble,” Thomas told IndieWire. “That was something that Hulu wanted to do, and I said, ‘Great.’ I don’t know exactly what it does, but I know that it messed up a lot of people’s viewing parties people had planned for that day [July 26]. But it did create a bit of a hubbub. We were trending No. 1 at one point, and we had it timed to about eight hours after it dropped, when when people figured out what we were doing plot-wise.”

The scramble to watch immediately to avoid spoilers and the shocking events of the season’s finale was a deadly combination among fans who made their displeasure known online. Members of the press were also thrown by the move; interviews planned for a pre-release rollout were rendered useless, finale reviews and hot takes had to be rushed for that night, and scheduled follow-up stories were similarly upset. The loss of positive coverage to build buzz was lost, along with a certain amount of goodwill in the symbiotic press-network relationship.

Fans were unhappy. The media was unhappy. And while it might be tempting to blame the surprise release model, that’s too simplistic. After all, it’s a strategy that has been employed with great success in the past, such as with “The OA,” “Guava Island,” “The Cloverfield Paradox,” and the final season of “UnREAL.”

Below are some of the major factors streaming platforms must take into consideration when deciding how and when to release a TV show:

The Binge Release vs. the Weekly Rollout

The Handmaid's Tale -- "Heroic" - Episode 309 -- Confined in a hospital, Juneís sanity begins to fray. An encounter with Serena Joy forces June to reassess her recent actions. June (Elisabeth Moss), shown. (Photo by: Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

Hulu

Hulu has enjoyed success by often sticking to the linear model of releasing episodes weekly, as with the acclaimed “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Castle Rock,” and even the name-checked “Harlots.” In the case of “Veronica Mars,” however, Hulu decided to mimic Netflix’s full-season binge drop, enabling some nervous fans who had heard rumblings from critics to skip to the ending and subsequently spoil it on social media.

“I didn’t even know that they were going to do that ’til about halfway into [shooting] the season. I’m excited about shows all dropping at once as a fan, and my first blush reaction was, ‘Great. It’ll be fun,'” said Thomas. “But then, when you’re doing a mystery show and everyone on social media is talking about the big turns in it, I don’t know. I think that I would like that parceled out next time just so the ending is not spoiled for so many people reading it on the internet.”

Competitors are wary. With the introduction of HBO Now/Go, the mother network could play with full-season drops, but HBO president Casey Bloys doesn’t foresee that happening with its new programming.

“I am a firm believer in the benefits of a weekly rollout. This year, ‘Succession,’ ‘True Detective’ ‘Big Little Lies,’ ‘Euphoria,’ ‘Chernobyl,’ and ‘Barry’ I think benefited from this, having something out in the culture for seven, eight, 10 weeks as opposed to all at once,” Bloys told IndieWire. “You’re just really taking advantage of having something out there, having people talk about it, having people analyze it. The downside is they’ll criticize it, but I would rather be out in the conversation. I think our creators appreciate that we continue to do it that way.”

Of course, Netflix and other platforms have had success with the binge model with their original series, but production and narratives are adjusted to fit this style of consumption. This could involve adding more cliffhangers, favoring serialized versus episodic elements, or breaking the three-act structure imposed by the ad-supported linear model.

A Known Franchise vs. a Fresh Discovery

"The OA"

“The OA”

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

“Veronica Mars” was an established property, and therefore it had a built-in following. As Thomas had acknowledged, the show’s early drop ended up cutting short many pre-release plans. Many fans and recent Hulu converts had planned their Season 1-3 rewatches to end coinciding with the release of the Season 4 revival. Viewing parties were scheduled, and even days off work had been requested.

Plans made on the network side would also have been upset by an unexpected surprise release. Bloys doesn’t think HBO would go with that route, even with the highly anticipated HBO Max platform on the horizon, because of the downside for marketing.

“I don’t think that would make sense for us only because I think one of the things that creators like about coming to HBO is that we put things very carefully out into the world,” he said. “There’s usually a pretty strategic media and publicity campaign around launching a show. I wouldn’t want to give all that up.”

The surprise drop has worked for a season of TV before, though. The first season of Netflix’s bizarre supernatural series “The OA” benefited from its sneaky drop, and even Hulu had moderate success with its surprise release of the fourth and final season of “UnREAL,” just three months after the Season 3 release on Lifetime.

In both cases, the unexpected release helped to build a buzz for shows that no one was really anticipating. “The OA” was a complete unknown and the very nature of its mystery meant that marketing had to be canny about what information it could release. And by Season 4 of “UnREAL,” the series had lost most of its initial audience and buzz. The surprise release boosted each show by sparking curiosity.

Misleading the Audience vs. Structuring Mystique

Guava Island Donald Glover Rihanna

Hulu also made a miscalculation by deciding to change the “Veronica Mars” premiere midstream. If releasing “Veronica Mars” at Comic-Con had always been the plan, then a specific later release date should never have been announced. Marketing that cited the original July 26 date – which was rendered incorrect – felt like a betrayal, that Hulu could not be trusted.

Instead, Hulu could’ve taken a cue from Netflix’s “The OA” or Amazon’s short film “Guava Island” to unleash images and trailers the few days leading up to release. The element of surprise would occur from the promotions that week, but the audience could still be able to make plans to watch.

Of course, streaming platforms cannot always control when a TV show is ready and plan elaborate campaigns. In these cases, some surprise releases are necessary, but even then it’s important to not take viewers unawares.

Take Britbox, the streaming service that specializes in BBC Studios and ITV series and movies. Britbox president Soumya Sriraman spoke to IndieWire about the platform’s challenges and the responsibility to its subscribers. “Given that we are so beholden to the schedules that come out of the UK, [the surprise drop] is going to happen to us. But how much of a surprise is the question mark,” she said. “I’d prefer that we don’t do it because I don’t think it’s fair. I think that you want to get people, there’s so much in everyone’s lives and, and viewing just adds complexity to that. I think you want to give people enough notice. I do think that viewers like it presented in an event manner. They like it being couched.”

Creating a Streaming Event

Big Mouth Valentines Andrew Missy

“Big Mouth” Valentine’s Day special “My Furry Valentine”

Netflix

Sriraman’s observation is key. Since streaming shows doesn’t have a traditional timeslot, reliable release dates are necessary. In the case of the biggest properties, these release dates are event-ized. Netflix is the master of creating an event out of a season of television. Everyone and their Demogorgon were aware that the third season of “Stranger Things” would be released on July 4, not only from the massive international marketing campaign, but also from the story’s time period that takes place around Independence Day.

And so too, surprise releases must be turned an into an event with enough lead time to embed itself in the viewer’s consciousness. The aforementioned “Guava Island,” “The OA,” and “UnREAL” issued press releases ahead of the surprise drop. As with “Stranger Things,” drafting off of established holidays can also work to eventize surprise releases. The “Big Mouth” Valentine’s Day special issued a press release the week before it premiered adjacent to the actual holiday, reinforcing its event status. Netflix’s interactive project, “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” gave viewers a one-day notice when it dropped its trailer the day before release. Although the “BoJack Horseman” Christmas special gave viewers no advance notice in its tweet, it was released on Dec. 19, during the winter holidays when viewers are seeking out festive content. Again, taking advantage of holidays or other times when viewers will be in front of their screens benefits from how audiences already watch TV.

The most effective yet shortest lead-time prize probably goes to “The Cloverfield Paradox,” which capitalized on the most American of events: the Super Bowl. A day-of tweet by Ava DuVernay and a surprise trailer airing during the Super Bowl were the only advance warnings viewers had that the J.J. Abrams-produced film would stream on Netflix following the big game. It was a smart move that offered an alternative to the post-Super Bowl timeslot, a linear event that people were already familiar with. It’s also easier to control spoilers with one-off specials or movies than it is with series.

The Takeaways for “Veronica Mars”

Veronica Mars -- "Spring Break Forever" - Episode 401 -- Panic spreads through Neptune when a bomb goes off during spring break. Veronica and Keith are hired by the wealthy family of one victim injured in the bombing to find out who is responsible. Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), shown. (Photo by: Michael Desmond/Hulu)

Kristen Bell, “Veronica Mars”

Hulu

At this point, it’s clear that the “surprise release” is a bit of a misnomer. In most cases, some notice must be given to prepare viewers to watch, which is why “Veronica Mars” dropping during the Comic-Con panel created confusion and frustration. Hulu effectively undid the season’s event status and shot itself in the foot.

Although the surprise drop had been offered as a gift for the fans, a better strategy would have been to split the difference by staggering the release. Perhaps the first episode could have dropped during the Comic-Con panel but the full season would be released as planned on the scheduled date. Or one episode could’ve been released per day starting from Comic-Con. Either plan would’ve built goodwill, kept viewers keen, but still held off the massive spoilers from the unpopular finale.

By now, “Veronica Mars” fans – alienated or otherwise – will have watched the revival season. And like any other streaming platform, Hulu doesn’t release viewership or streaming numbers. Therefore, how successful the season was will only be revealed if Hulu renews the series for another go-round, as Thomas already has ambitious plans for rejiggering the formula. Even if that does come to pass, it might be too late. When it comes to streaming platforms that don’t reveal anything of substance, perception is everything. And the botched release of “Veronica Mars” gives the perception of unreliability and chaos.

Additional reporting by Steve Greene, Libby Hill, and Ben Travers.

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