Game of Thrones weekly fever should spell the end of the TV binge
The series would not have gained the same attention if it had been uploaded all at once
Anything on TV? Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) from Game of Thrones in happier times. Photograph: HBO
When you play the game of television, you win or you die, there is no middle ground – or so Cersei Lannister would say if she was to swap her fictional queen status for the life of a peak-TV content executive.
She might have to stop being so cuddly and sentimental and double down on her cut-throat tendencies in order to properly thrive in Hollywood, but at least her direct line to the Iron Bank would come in handy for something other than doomed wars for once.
So now that HBO’s Game of Thrones is a pile of bloodied ashes in the rubble of television history, what lessons will be learned? There is one dragon sized, so obvious it should be staring everybody in the face one, and it lies in the hype and hoopla that stokes the show.
The feverish weekly cycle of fan reaction round-ups, episode recaps, unanswered question lists, prediction corners, critics’ debates and happy trailer hosting makes it as clear as ice: there is no better marketing tool for a flagship drama series than to release it one episode at a time. Why does anybody ever think the opposite?
The practice of uploading an entire season at once, a fashion started by Netflix and since spread beyond it, might satisfy some devotees and be vocally demanded by others. But it misses a trick. In an entertainment market packed tighter than the Winterfell crypt, there is simply no better way to sustain the conversation about a show than to pump it out one eagerly awaited instalment at a time.
The generations that grew up with only linear television channels – supported, if you were lucky, by VHS recordings, self-made or sometimes purchased – have been like kids in the sweet shop when it comes to binge-viewing. Cliffhanger ending? Why can’t I watch the next episode right away? Oh, I can, brilliant, it’s like all my childhood instant-gratification desires come true.
But once this becomes any kind of norm, the novelty wears off. For middle-ground shows, a problem then occurs. Why should anybody watch the next episode, then the next one, then the next one after that, rather than trying their luck with something new?
Without the routine of a fixed “premiere” day – and a realistic opportunity to see each episode at exactly the same time as everybody else – the incentive to consume is surely weaker, not stronger. The storytelling bar rises higher. A show that flirts with mediocrity can be kept alive by the habitual prod of a linear television habit, even if it never quite captures the appointment-to-view crown. But in an infinite streaming catalogue, it will die an anonymous death.
To date, Netflix has gone down the weekly episodes route only when that’s a condition of its deal with a broadcaster, as has been the case for its distribution of CBS’s Star Trek: Discovery and AMC’s Better Call Saul. Its own “Originals” have been added one season at a time, and it shows little enthusiasm for abandoning this policy.
But if the marketing window is too short, or if it gets blocked out by a competitor’s offering, then a show can sink like a pebble with only a modicum of chatter before the next one comes along.
Conversely, if people who don’t have work to do on the day of release binge-consume a whole series and post about it positively but in infuriatingly knowing tones, a segment of the potential audience may be left with the feeling that, well, they already seem to have missed out, so they might as well not bother.
Next month, the BBC will finally make Killing Eve, a show made by its commercial US subsidiary BBC America, available to viewers in the UK. BBC America has first-run rights, but the BBC could have shown the series a few days behind the US. Instead, for the second consecutive year, it decided it wanted to “experiment” by dumping all of the episodes at once on the iPlayer – but a whole two months after the US debut.
Its commitment to this belated binge principle means that Irish viewers can once again follow the amusing but preposterous Killing Eve on RTÉ before viewers in the UK. Unleashing things “as a box set” has never felt more out of date.
Game of Thrones may be done, but it’s not exactly dusted. An online media micro-industry is still teasing through its stray props, embarrassing racial politics and the tragedy of Cersei having no good dialogue in season eight, and such is the popularity of this content that it may keep doing so until the first spin-off comes along. (Please don’t try to make us care about Westworld.)
There are other takeaways from the triumph of Game of Thrones. Its “go big or go home” approach has been discussed often: since its 2011 debut, the cast-heavy, CGI-heavier series has basked in ever more glorious budgets, setting industry standards that only the richest or most highly leveraged of television providers can hope to emulate. The series has also become a piracy case study, obliging HBO to hone both its copyright fightback and distribution tactics.
But it would be weird for the industry to ignore the greatest lesson of all: a TV binge may be a fine and fun way for viewers to catch-up, but as a strategy for unveiling new and expensive content, it’s hardly the most compelling.