Original Content Scheduling: To Binge or Buzz?

This November, Amazon made its original content debut with Alpha House, with a noticeably different content release schedule than its rival Netflix. Rather than making all the episodes available at once, Amazon made the first three episodes available for free on Amazon Instant Video and is releasing a new episode every Friday for Amazon Prime members until the end of the season.

Amazon Studios Director Roy Price said that the reason behind the scheduling is built on anticipation and creating more buzz for the show:

“We will release three episodes upfront for all customers so they can try out the shows and get to know the characters. Then we will release new episodes via Prime Instant Video week by week so that customers can chat about the shows and build up anticipation.”

Before the industry was introduced to Netflix’s model of “all at once” scheduling, it made perfect sense to have doubts about the risks of making all episodes available at once. When you bring all the goodies to the table, one tends to binge rather than savor, creating a buzz that is short lived. In this case, the anticipation that has been built up before the release of the show will die down from the pop culture eye after a few weeks (social media comments, link sharing, weekly critics, blogs, episode commentary). Why else do you think major studios decide to break out final installments? (The final Harry Potter and Twilight movies were made into two separate movies, and Breaking Bad’s last season was split into two mini seasons, which will also be the case for the final season of Mad Men.)

Even a Forbes article expressed doubts about Netflix’s “all-at-once” scheduling last year, with writer Steven Rosenbaum calling it a decision he didn’t understand. “Clearly they [Netflix] did this for a reason, but when you look at the benefits and the costs, it isn’t clear they made the right call.”

But here’s what a lot of industry insiders didn’t anticipate. In today’s digital era, there’s a huge focus on viewer control, and that’s what Netflix has built a lot of its success on. Audiences get to choose what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, no matter the device they happen to be using at the time. This formula is a proven success for Netflix, which has so far successfully released original series “all at once” four times this year, fueling the binge-viewing bandwagon that so many people (including myself) have hopped on.

According to Nielsen’s 2013 Over-the-Top Video Analysis, 88% of Netflix users and 70% of Hulu Plus users report streaming three or more episodes of the same TV show in one day, and an estimated 58% of these users prefer to view shows when they do not have to abide by schedules other than their own and can watch several episodes consecutively. This is a trend that is popular, and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings definitely took a risk when he made the decision to lay everything out on the table at once, but he couldn’t ignore the audience and their viewing habits. He had this to say in a letter to investors:

“Linear channels must aggregate a large audience at a given time of day and hope the show programmed will actually attract enough viewers despite this constraint. With Netflix, members can enjoy a show anytime, and over time, we can effectively put the right show in front of members based on their viewing habits … For linear TV, the fixed number of prime-time slots mean that only shows that hit it big and fast survive … In contrast, Internet TV is an environment where smaller or quirkier shows can prosper because they can find a big enough audience over time.”

We’re still in the early stages of Alpha House, but it will be interesting to see how the show will progress in the next few weeks. So far, Amazon claimed that the show was its most-watched program streaming on its Prime Instant Video service the weekend of November 15th. Inevitably, the show’s success will ultimately be up to the audience. Will taking a portion of control away from the audience affect its outcome? We’ll have to wait and see if audiences choose binge over buzz, or perhaps a mix of both.