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‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Has a New Release Strategy. What’s the Best Way to Drop a Hit Now?

Will a weekly release make Midge Maisel more marvelous?

Rachel Brosnahan in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"

Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Courtesy of Prime Video

It’s been more than two years since TV fans have been graced with new episodes of Amazon Studios’ Emmy Award-winning series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and as Season 4 begins, audiences will have an opportunity to see Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) as they’ve never seen her before: piecemeal.

Upon releasing the trailer for the show’s new season in November, Amazon Studios’ announced the comedy series, executive produced by Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, would return with just two episodes on Friday, February 18, 2022, with the rest of the season — eight episodes all told — released in pairs in subsequent weeks. The news was a marked departure for the series, which saw bulk episode releases for each of its first three seasons.

And while the change might take some viewers by surprise, it’s just the latest adjustment being made by streamers anxious to keep an equilibrium in a television landscape as volatile as it’s ever been.

But back in the beginning, there was only Netflix. And in 2013 when the entertainment monolith dropped the first season of “House of Cards” wholesale, it revolutionized the way we watched TV. Suddenly, audiences were no longer content to consume television, they wanted to binge it. It was a natural progression from the technological advancements that came before.

“As more serious streaming competitors have entered the marketplace, the release models have destabilized,” said Myles McNutt, author, TV critic, and associate professor of communication and theatre arts at Old Dominion University. “Netflix’s sheer volume of TV shows made binge releases the default early on even when Hulu was primarily releasing shows on a weekly basis, but each new platform that has emerged has observed a changing marketplace and said, ‘Hmm, let’s try this instead.’”

The past year in TV has seen wins come from all over the map regarding release schedules. Showtime’s “Yellowjackets” started slow, but word of mouth saw the series grow from week-to-week, a fervor only fueled by the premium cable network’s choice to allow for streaming of each week’s episodes more than 20 hours before it aired. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Netflix’s “Squid Game” was an unprecedented global phenomenon that was completely unfazed by a binge release, creating months of buzz from episodes readily available from the time it premiered.

While there are arguments to be made that part of the reason other streamers are embracing alternate release models is because it’s impossible for anyone to match the sheer volume of content that Netflix puts out, there are also plenty of reasons why a major player like Amazon Prime Video might opt to go another way.

Rachel Brosnahan

Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Christopher Saunders/Amazon Prime Video

“We really aspire to be a home for talent. Part of that is really listening to our partners and our creators and figuring out what their vision is, as the people behind the shows, and then also trying to listen to our audience and understand what they’re most interested in, how things are best going to be received by them,” said Marc Resteghini, Amazon Studios’ head of U.S. and global development, regarding how the company is making its streaming release decisions.

To wit, “Maisel” executive producers Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino had their own thoughts on how they’d like the fourth season of the show unfurled and, combined with conversations already taking place within the service about altered release models — Amazon Studios’ opted for weekly releases for the second season of hit series “The Boys” — Season 4 seemed like a natural place to change things up. The streamer has clearly reached a flashpoint which has it reevaluating how it presents its programming, both new and old, to audiences

“There’s just a lot for the audience to digest,” Resteghini said. “It felt like this was an opportunity to really allow people to savor the individual episodes. And two [episodes] felt like the right number. One felt like it would be cruel.

“And it’s not just the dialogue. It’s the production design, it’s the costumes, it’s the attention to detail. We want people to really be able to immerse themselves in this and appreciate the immense amount of hard work that went into the last two years of getting this season ready.”

As Amazon Studios continues to interrogate the binge-release model, others in the industry are reflecting on their own strategies.

Euphoria Season 2 Zendaya

Zendaya in “Euphoria”

Eddy Chen / HBO

“We really felt from the beginning that there would not be a one-size-fits-all approach on HBO Max, because we have more flexibility on a streaming platform than we do in terms of the real estate from a linear perspective,” Meredith Gertler, executive vice president, content strategy and planning, HBO and HBO Max, said. “And we really wanted to be bespoke and dynamic with our approach on Max.”

“But we’ve seen with the history of HBO, that there are so many advantages to the weekly release pattern, giving us more runway to drive awareness. It allows for multiple entry points into the show over the course of its run. It can help to serve to increase engagement and, of course, generate sustained cultural conversation. That’s definitely something that we wanted to transport over to the Max strategy.”

To illustrate her point, Gertler denoted the expansive growth HBO has seen with “Euphoria,” where the premiere episode of the second season of the series is currently approaching 17 million viewers across platforms, more that 2.5 times the average audience of Season 1.

“Every Sunday we see the social media feeds light up. Viewership is up 167 percent from Season 1, and that is a true weekly rollout, but hitting a younger audience,” she said. “And so we know that works and it’s not necessarily that people are clamoring for a binge.”

During the FX Executive Session at the Television Critics Assn. Winter Press Tour on February 17, FX chairman John Landgraf expressed similar observations of the current TV landscape and how things have changed, both in recent years and beyond.

“We are learning a lot about the intersection of streaming and linear channels and also global releases with domestic releases. In other words, we were for a long time really only focused on what day of the week [a show] would launch, what would its lead-in be, what other competitive programs might be launching on that day or on other channels or on streaming platforms,” Landgraf said. “Now you are competing against every great film, every great television, every great long-form story ever made, on multiple streaming platforms with 550 new shows coming out a year. So, it more becomes about really understanding the cadence of consumption by consumers, when they want to watch things, how they want to watch things.”

Lee Jung-jae in "Squid Game"

Lee Jung-jae in “Squid Game”

Noh Juhan | Netflix

For all the micro and macro planning taking place at other streamers and more traditional broadcasters searching for an optimized method of rolling out programming, Netflix remains (mostly) resolute in its decision to binge or bust.

And why shouldn’t they? The model they developed nearly a decade ago with “House of Cards” continues to pay off for them. “Squid Game” spent 19 weeks, just short of five months, in the streamer’s self-reported Top 10. Limited series “Maid” was in the Top 10 for 12 weeks and “You” — a series that aired one season on Lifetime, was renewed, had its renewal reneged, and was saved by Netflix — spent eight weeks in the Top 10 upon release of its third season last year.

But not even Netflix is completely immune from the allure of a longer release window, with unscripted reality shows including “The Circle” and “Love Is Blind” getting batch releases and other established scripted programming, specifically “Ozark” and “Stranger Things,” seeing seasons split into two distinct releases. With that in mind, it must be said that while there might be narrative or audience-driven reasons that “Ozark” and “Stranger Things” (both known Emmy players) are seeing their seasons bifurcated, it’s equally likely those calls are being made to maximize awards eligibility windows.

So with all that in mind, where does the industry go from here?

“Streaming services are going to need to convince users that one size does not fit all if they’re going to marry the needs of shareholders, the nuances of their content, and the expectations of their users,” McNutt said. “And if anyone is going to win out in that battle, it’s the shareholders, which means users are going to need to either accept what they’re given or vote with their subscription dollars to create the change they want to see.”

Tony Shaloub, Marin Hinkle, and Rachel Brosnahan in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"

Tony Shaloub, Marin Hinkle, and Rachel Brosnahan in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Courtesy of Prime Video

With subscribers voting with their pocketbooks, content providers are going to have to face their own crucible when it comes to observing the playing field and crafting a winning brand strategy.

“I think everyone will have to answer for themselves,” Gertler said. “We know what works for us and that may or may not be what works for another streamer, but we’re very just focused on how to best meet our audience’s needs.”

Whether that means a player breaks with a binge-model and starts rolling things out in stages or someone else determines the best way forward is complete chaos, releasing episodes of shows randomly, the rules of the game seem increasingly immaterial. Suddenly streaming seems less like poker and more like solitaire. You can still lose, you can still win, but at some point you realize you’re not playing against anyone else at the table, you’re only playing against yourself. In a volatile marketplace, sometimes that’s all you can do.

“Had you asked me eight years ago, would we be launching shows like this, I would’ve said no,” Resteghini said. “So what’s exciting right now is that things are continuing to evolve and change so quickly. And it really is, I hope, to the benefit of creators and to audiences. The world is changing. We’ve changed so much in the last two years that I think it would be naive of me to say I can predict where we’ll be two years from now. But we’re open minded about it and try to listen as much as we can.”

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