“Traditionally with television there was the water-cooler chat each week, and that model ensured a slower burn of publicity. If people are binge-watching everything, it’s like the show drops and it’s instantly yesterday’s news.”
For new streamers like Apple TV+ and Disney+, who are just looking to get a hold in new markets, there’s also a clear commercial imperative for limiting access.
“They’re using models that offer week-long free trials, and so it’s not in their interest to drop entire shows at once,” says Lumby. “If [viewers] can watch a show in two or three days, they’re not going to get the conversion rate they want of people signing up to the service monthly.”
For viewers now accustomed to watching what they want when they want (for example, a four-hour Russian Doll marathon stretching from Saturday night to Sunday morning), the trend has the potential to annoy.
Vic Buchan, director of communications at Nine Network, which publishes this masthead and has experimented with its traditional broadcast schedules by offering more binge-like options on their streaming platforms, says a mixed approach is key to sating an audience’s need for choice.
“The thing about this business is it’s all so delicate and inch-by-inch and it’s responding to the audience all the time. Nobody wants it to be predictable anymore, and people are looking for different things in different ways,” says Buchan.
“A Country Practice used to be on a Tuesday night at 8.30pm for 48 weeks of the year. You can’t do that anymore. The audience is just not going to wait around for that.”
Whether viewers will patiently hang around for a week to see the outcome of a mid-season cliffhanger is a question streamers will soon discover. But there’s a wider benefit to reverting to the sort of collective viewing experience we shared in the past.
“One of the incredible things television does is it gives us a kind of shared language,” says Lumby, citing the way ’90s sitcom Sex and the City “gave voice to changes in gender politics and the way women viewed their sexuality”. “It’s one of the mistakes people make when they say watching TV is a passive activity or it rots your brain or they compare it unfavourably with reading books.
“TV is an incredibly valuable cultural form because in reflecting things that are happening in our societies, it can give us those water-cooler moments. It’s a sort of zeitgeist barometer, and I think the interactions and conversations around television shows are just as important as the shows themselves,” she says. “But if you binge-watch a show, you don’t often get to have that conversation the day after. The ‘did you see’ conversation is still incredibly important.”
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age