To Binge or Not to Binge?

Image: Disney+

Disney+, the titular media conglomerate’s streaming service, is due to launch in the UK alongside various other European countries on 24th March after a successful debut in North America and Australasia in November of last year. 

Teed up as an effort to muscle in on Netflix’s territory, continuing the Mouse House’s world domination (seriously, after completing its acquisition of most of Fox, its market share of the US box office in 2019 was a huge 38 per cent, raking in over $11bn worldwide; seven of the top 10 highest grossing films worldwide last year hailed from Disney, with another, Spider-Man: Far From Home, being a co-production with Sony from Disney’s Marvel outlet), it will have an impressive array of content available upon launch, becoming the exclusive place to watch the library of Disney classics as the company has been slowly clawing back the rights to its back catalogue.

One series that won’t be available in its entirety upon launch, however, is Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian. Taking the internet by storm, with Baby Yoda memes saturating Twitter at the back end of last year while it aired in the US, only the first two episodes will be available for UK subscribers to watch on 24th March, with the subsequent six episodes released on a weekly basis. While to some this may to some seem like the obvious way for a TV series to release, it’s actually a fairly innovative strategy for the new streaming service to take.

Netflix rose to prominence as the home of the binge. Dropping all episodes of a series at once (bar the ones they brand as originals but are really just territorial acquisitions from other networks, see Better Call Saul et al.), the service is synonymous with bedding down for a weekend and watching for hours on end. Some users have even reported alerts asking ‘Are you still watching?’, assuming that they’ve fallen asleep or have just left it playing by mistake when no, they really have been glued to the screen for the past 10 hours.

Other broadcasters are also beginning to take the Netflix approach: Channel 4 released all episodes of the second series of The End of the F***ing World in November on their platform All4 at once, while the BBC made all episodes of their new flagship drama Noughts + Crosses available to watch on iPlayer immediately after the linear broadcast of the first episode.

Disney+, however, is taking the ‘classic’ approach, making you wait for the next installment. No eight hours straight of new Star Wars content for their subscribers, but rather a salivating wait over many weeks. And in some regards, is that not better? Would The Mandolorian have had quite so much buzz in the US, for quite so long, if it had been released all at once? I don’t think so.

Take The Witcher for example, Netflix’s recent high fantasy adaptation starring one-time Superman actor Henry Cavill, which was billed as the next Game of Thrones. It was actually wildly successful, with 76 million households reportedly streaming it in the first month of release; yet the buzz around it was gone after a few weeks. ‘Toss A Coin To Your Witcher’ may have ruled the memewaves on Twitter for a fortnight, but then nothing. A flash in the pan compared to Baby Yoda, who reigned supreme for months. Or take Stranger Things 3, which again was undoubtedly one of the most popular series of last year, but was gone from the cultural scene in an instant.

Would Game of Thrones have been so successful if it were released all at once? Would it have climbed to dizzying heights (before beginning to awkwardly climb back down during its final season) if it were not a weekly event that you were forced to watch for fear of being left behind on the office conversation the next day? It was truly water-cooler television.

The series wasn’t discussed as a whole (or awkwardly half-discussed as you tried to work out how far through your friends were and what you could say or listen to for fear of spoilers), but each episode taken apart, analysed, and theorised where the narrative could be heading. All of this buzz is incompatible with the little button known as ‘play next episode’.

It’s all business-smarts for Disney as well. By extending the media prominence of its content, they can not only maintain dominance of the airwaves, but also give audiences longer to become obsessed, leading to a whole host of ancillary profits as Baby Yoda plush toys and Funko Pops fly off the shelves. It’s unlikely that those of Geralt, Cavill’s eponymous Witcher, are flying off just so fast. And true, as an existing IP Star Wars does already have a well-established fan base, but with eight books and three popular video games, so does The Witcher.

This year, Marvel plans to release two series (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in August and WandaVision in December) on Disney+, both of which directly tie into and feature headline actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the highest grossing film franchise ever, by quite some margin. If they dropped all at once, undoubtedly they’d still be hugely successful, just as Stranger Things 3 was. But after a few weeks the conversation would have moved onto the next thing.

Instead, each series will likely hold the top spot in pop culture discussion for a longer period of time. Combine them together, and add the two theatrical films that Marvel were set to release this year, and they essentially had a cultural buzz sewn up from May, when Black Widow was originally set to release in cinemas (now delayed however due to the coronavirus outbreak), through the end of the year. In 2021, with no fewer than four MCU films and a potential six Disney+ series coming out, they’ll rule the airwaves in perpetuity.

An argument could have been made that, as The Mandolorian has already concluded elsewhere in the world, Disney+ could have dropped the first series all at once in the UK, while still continuing to release its second series, set to premiere in October, on a weekly basis, alongside its other shows. But why do that when you had the chance for a resurgence of hype across Europe?

There’s also reports of subscribers in the US cancelling their subscriptions after The Mandolorian wrapped up in the US, as despite the huge back catalogue, the service doesn’t really have another headline original until The Falcon and the Winter Soldier begins in late summer (coronavirus permitting, given production has just been shut down). Admittedly then, the weekly release schedule here also makes sense: many weeks worth of subscriber fees is better than a wave of people joining with free trial, bingeing the series and cancelling a few days later.

Weekly releases also help to set Disney+ apart. As mentioned, dropping and binge watching is kind of Netflix’s thing. Disney+ is new on the streaming block; it wants to chart its own way to planned eventual dominance. It won’t get that by entirely copying its competitor’s strategy, and for a media giant that dates back to the 1920s, maybe having the past inspire its future is an apt way to go.

Disney wants its series to rule the cultural conversations for week. Far beyond their established brands such as Star Wars, Marvel, and High School Musical, but for when they, eventually, start premiering content not based on any original IP. Maybe the age of bingeing is coming to a close. Netflix is dead. Long live Disney+?

Oscar Bentley