Is streaming turning back into scheduled TV?

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” – Ecclesiastes.

Although it’s unusual for me to pull out a biblical quote to start an article, it does feel appropriate when talking about the changing of the guard in television over the last few decades. The way we watch and consume content has, there is no doubt, been changed forever by the advent of the internet, the ability to stream, download and access video on demand at the touch of a button. But with all this change, there is also beginning to feel a sense of deja-vu in certain areas of the telly.

For many, their first taste of this brave new world may have been through the wild west of video piracy in the mid-2000s when home internet speeds became fast enough to download movies and TV series through torrent sites, just like people had been doing through Napster et al in the world of music with smaller files. However, as in the domain of music, where iTunes and later streaming services like Spotify would draw people away from illegal streaming to a new model of legal consumption, the television and movie industries were about to change too.

With the BBC developing iPlayer and Netflix about to be a thing worldwide, the 2010s saw the most dramatic shift in how we discovered and watched our favourite shows. Although the amount of choice available to us had been expanded in the previous decades by the advent of the home video recorder, cable and satellite – and latterly the PVR driven forward by Sky Plus in the UK, the majority of our viewing was still index linked to the schedules of the major channels.

The Netflix boom changed that. Suddenly for a relatively low single monthly fee, a world of entertainment was available at our fingertips (if your internet could cope with it.) From Netflix Original content like House of Cards, to clever buy-ins from across the globe like Breaking Bad, this service combined the “talkability” of the internet and the rapidly growing social media market with an enviable back catalogue of legacy television shows and movies licensed from the big broadcasters. It was like the biggest video store in the world in your front room, and you didn’t have to be kind and rewind or go out in the rain to get it. What’s more it was a lot cheaper than buying VHS or DVD, and comparable to making a few rentals a month. In short, who would bother pirating anymore?

The advent of the cheap smart TV dongle and the connected TV being manufactured as standard made this way of watching a way of life very quickly for many viewers. And although big scheduled TV held its own, led by event TV, entertainment and live sport, something fundamentally started to change in the mind of many consumers, they wanted what they wanted when they wanted it – and so “On Demand” was born.

One of the central pillars of the Netflix model was the removal of delayed gratification from the television viewing experience. Their original series’ were “dropped” in entire seasons and the viewer was able – perhaps even encouraged – to binge the lot in a short space of time. This created a headache for editors like me trying to cover these shows (and to an extent still does) as you have no idea when people have watched each episode and at what point a spoiler becomes news. However, it changed the essence of the streaming experience for many, with a cohort of viewers beginning to expect to be able to watch the entire 8 or 10-episode series immediately – from Stranger Things to The Crown.

Great. The answer to on demand scheduling was with us. Season-by-season drops were the future… except when they weren’t.

This model is fine if you have complete control over the content – and all the providers do it the same way. But as we began to see, it can be a little more complicated than that.

For example, some watching Breaking Bad in the UK had always had it branded as a “Netflix Original” as a clever part of the streamer’s licensing strategy, yet were surprised that they had to wait weekly for each instalment of the bleak final season chronicling the demise of Walter White in 2013. This wasn’t because Netflix chose this model, but because as US readers will know, Breaking Bad is a show made by cable network AMC in the US and was released weekly. Therefore Netflix had to follow suit. A potential issue with the full season drop model unless you make all your own content.

Breaking Bad

Fast forward a few more years and the success of Netflix had made the big broadcasters across the world realise they wanted a piece of this action, and new services began to spring up. Amazon arrived with a large selection of movies and a growing catalogue of licensed and original shows (which were released on varied schedules) and had by the late 2010s caused quite a stir by buying into the big-money Premier League video market.

Simultaneously, Netflix continued to dominate the streaming market and pushed the series drop agenda for originals, but as big broadcasters and studios started to claw legacy content back for their own upcoming streaming projects, Netflix doubled down on originals from Sex Education to 13 Reasons Why. Netflix had a huge amount of success with this – creating cultural phenomena from Stranger Things to Squid Game with shock and awe releases of some of the most talked about TV anywhere on the planet.

But as we reached the end of the 2010s there were two things about to happen that might challenge this new status quo. Firstly there were about to be a lot of new entrants to the market from more traditional broadcasters, all with their own ideas about how to “hook a consumer” and secondly a global pandemic would upend our viewing habits and accelerate change in technology behaviours.

Shortly before the global pandemic of 2020, Apple entered the streaming market, and then perhaps more significantly due to the huge franchises they owned, Disney+ crashed the party. In the US HBO Max and Peacock made waves alongside people like Hulu… and although it took some time for any of these pretenders to the streaming throne to start to unsettle the dominance of Netflix, they began to – and with a different model.

You see Disney+ and Apple TV+ weren’t into the game of dropping the whole season and leaving it to the fans to decide when to watch. They had decided to release shows episodically. A decision, at first appears to be about creating buzz and excitement in a very crowded market, but increasingly looks to be a tactic that may help keep subscribers subscribed.

HBO Max across the pond has also taken the decision to meter out the fun in a more traditional way. Not willing to make a show like House of the Dragon, and allow all the PR value and excitement to be blown in one go. Indeed, one of the things that made Game of Thrones a success was the digital water cooler (and actual water cooler moments) that had people talking and guessing each and every week. Yes, of course, many have discovered and binged the series since, but it’s hard to argue that the true momentum of the show didn’t come from its weekly episodic excitement.

In addition to the awful phrase “talkability” that comes from a show being weekly – ie. the chance to get build excitement about where characters and storylines are going, it feels there may also be a more hard-nosed commercial reason behind the weekly drops.

In a world where things are getting more expensive and streaming services are not just becoming more prevalent, but indeed they are crushing us under their collective weight (find out how much it costs to subscribe to them all on the video at the end of this article and visit the Screen OD YouTube channel for more) – surely people are going to become more selective with their subscribing.

House of the Dragon from HBO Max

If House of the Dragon can be consumed in one go, what’s to stop the smart streamer from nipping in and watching all of it (and a bunch of other shows on HBO Max – or NOW/ Sky in the UK) and then cancelling after a month? Likewise, if Wandavision and The Mandalorian are released in full at their peak – could Disney+ see a drop off after people have binged them, waiting for the next really big show before they return?

You could argue that this is still possible if you’re willing to wait until the full run is complete and the series is stacked on the service, but for many, being part of the conversation about the biggest shows when they are airing is part of the fun.

With The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power about to drop its first two episodes on Prime Video from Amazon, and then viewers getting weekly helping for eight more weeks – what began as being an outlier in on demand and streaming seems to becoming the norm. Schedules are returning to the television market at a time when people are saying scheduled TV should be dead.

Even Netflix has split some of its more recent seasonal releases into two parts. Stranger Things season 4 ran across two parts and so did the brilliant Ozark final season. Is even Netflix now delaying our gratification as viewers just a tiny bit more than it used to? Perhaps it’s the way of the modern world…

And so here we are in a galaxy of endless choices when we can watch anything we want whenever we want, waiting desperately for the next episode of House of the Dragon. Has streaming gone full circle – is there anything new under the sun?