Streaming Content: Scattering Vs Dumping

Like a good millennial, I don’t have cable. Instead I have Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney+, YouTube, and a free trial of Apple TV. And before you say that I’m spending just as much as I would have spent on cable, just – no. First, I am not. Second, I have way more capability and discretion than I ever had with cable. Each of these streaming services now has their own studio(s) and competition is causing them to produce some content of exceptional quality. And, they differ in their decisions scatter vs dump. Amazon and Apple TV scatter their new episodes on a weekly schedule. You can still watch the episodes whenever your heart desires once they’re released. But if you are up-to-date, then you must wait 7 days until new episodes are available. Netflix, on the other hand, dumps out a new series all at once. You can spend the afternoon (or morning, or night) watching an entire season of the newest content from a high-end studio.

If we take a look through the way-way-back machine, then we can observe must-see-TV on NBC in the 1990s. Networks followed the scattering model. Most people didn’t own a DVR and on demand wasn’t really a thing except for pay-per-view. VCR (video cassette recorders) were ubiquitous, but people enjoyed watching their shows as they were released rather than later watching a recording. The 90s and early 00s were a special time for NBC in particular: Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and ER were all a part of the weekly line-up – with Will & Grace and Scrubs soon following the finale of Seinfeld.

New weekly episodes that were released during a literal ‘season’ of the year had been the model for as long as television signals had been broadcasted. Several of today’s streaming services still adhere to the 80-year-old practice.

Why?

I’ve got 3 reasons for why streaming services still scatter new releases. The first is the one I that have the least to say about: Buzz. It’s good marketing for a show to be released over a longer period of time. In a world of social media, the longer the time that a show is salient in your life, the greater the opportunity for you to share the show with your friends or for critics to acclaim (or pan, as the case may be). It’s a marketing tactic. If all of the episodes in a season were released all at once, then a show would be in-and-out of your life like a stray ice cube that goes rogue from the refrigerator ice-dispenser. You care for a bit. But soon, it’ll evaporate and never be a concern again. I’m not an expert in marketing. So I’ll just leave it at that.

The second reason is due to the time value of money. The sooner that we can enjoy revenues and the later that we can push costs, the better. It’s true for multiple reasons. Financially, every day sooner that you receive a dollar is an additional day during which you can earn a return by investing it elsewhere. For ease, let’s hold the schedule of costs constant and just worry about the revenues. If a streaming service releases episodes weekly, then episodes can start dropping before the season finale is even completed. There’s nothing that says that the whole season has to be ready by the time the first episode is released.  And, when episodes are released earlier, would-be viewers are sooner willing to sign-up and become paying customers. Releasing episodes weekly allows a studio to increase revenues before the whole product has finished production.

The 3rd and final reason for streaming services to release on a weekly schedule is due to the subscription structure of marginal revenue. Streaming services earn *no* additional revenue per episode viewed by customers. The marginal revenue earned from paying customers comes from subscriptions. That is, each month of a subscription is revenue for the streaming service provider – no matter how many episodes a subscriber watches. Therefore, if a season is released piecemeal, then it increases the number of weeks during which the streaming service receives revenues from the customer. Of course, people could just wait until all of the episodes are released and then subscribe for a single weekend of lethargic binging. But that can only happen when a viewer is comfortable with forsaking the frontier of new video content. That would mean that a viewer is out of fashion and out of the conversation that their friends and co-workers are having. And if this sounds like small potatoes, then keep in mind that such conversations are often about signaling belonging, comradery, and cultural sophistication. Many people are inclined to stay up-to-date on TV, the news, and sports and therefore have a greater willingness to pay.

There you have it. The 3 reasons for streaming by scattering over weeks rather than dumping all at once are 1) More persistent saliency among viewers and potential viewers, 2) Sooner rather than delayed revenues, and 3) More periods for which streaming service can charge their customers for new content.

I only have one explanation for why some streaming services do in fact dump an entire season at once. Netflix does it on the regular and Amazon started doing it in the past several years too. I suspect that they do it as a means of attracting a particular market segment: binge-watchers. There being two players who compete on this margin may make either provider appear less attractive for consumers who desire new, binge-worthy content. But, luckily for Netflix, streaming content providers aren’t in a perfectly competitive market. That content an imperfect substitute means that it’s monopolistically competitive. And, for the moment, that means higher profits. The keen reader will recognize, however, that zero long run economic profits are also implied.