Nine years ago this month, Netflix changed the way we watch TV. The streaming service has released an entire season of its political drama “House of Cards” at once, allowing viewers to binge on 13 episodes.
Consumers were torn over whether binge drinking was a luxury or, as with a gallon of ice cream or a fifth of vodka, too much of a good thing. Either way, the planning tactic has helped Netflix‘s profits skyrocket. Now, with a slew of new streaming services competing for subscriber dollars, the excessive programming may soon be undone.
A new report from research firm Antenna has shown that many customers subscribe when a major movie or series arrives, then unsubscribe soon after. This customer turnover, or “churning,” is beginning to worry streaming services, just as it has plagued premium cable TV stations such as HBO and Showtime for the past five decades. Deloitte Global predicts that at least 150 million streaming subscriptions will be canceled worldwide in 2022.
TV programmers learned long ago that nothing keeps viewers engaged over time like a weekly hit series. Unfortunately, the excessive programming works against that, allowing viewers to watch and race, just like they would a major movie.
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Here’s what a recent New York Times consumer column suggested: “When an entire season of a show you want to watch becomes available, you can join the appropriate streaming service, watch it for a month, and then watch it. ‘Cancel – and re-subscribe later if you’re tempted by something else.’ That’s precisely what’s causing streaming services to rethink the binge strategy.
Apple TV+, for example, had great success with the offbeat comedy “Ted Lasso” airing it in a traditional weekly episodic style, with an audience that’s built by word of mouth. Thanks to streaming’s technological advantage for on-demand library viewing, “Ted Lasso” latecomers could easily catch up.
Even Netflix is changing its binge-style programming. When the hit crime thriller “Ozark” began its fourth and final season last month, many viewers were surprised that only half of the 14 produced episodes were made available. Netflix customers will have to wait – and presumably maintain their subscriptions – until the remaining seven shows are offered.
The programming challenge comes at a time when programming is growing at a remarkable rate. In 2021, streamers and cable services combined to deliver 1,923 original series episodes, according to Variety’s analysis, a 22% increase in just one year.
That’s in addition to movies, many of which have gone straight to streaming during the pandemic, and off-network reruns, such as “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” which have found new popularity in ad-free streaming.
Binging a large library of replays is a big advantage of streaming. However, as streaming services assess marketing needs, it’s likely that the ability to watch entire seasons of new marathon-style series won’t last much longer. The strategy that helped Netflix build a streaming empire is collapsing, like a house of cards.
Peter Funt’s columns are distributed by the newspaper syndicate Cagle Cartoons.