The Fall of the Streaming Monoculture: How the Overabundance of Content and Platforms is Splintering the Television Experience

The Rise and Fall of the Streaming Monoculture

For a brief moment in history, streaming services like Netflix offered viewers a much-needed break from the monotony of cable packages and network scheduling. With the advent of streaming, came the slow death of the monoculture. The streaming era promised more choice, more content tailored to individual tastes, and an endless amount of content to consume, whenever and however you wanted it.

But in the pursuit of innovation, streaming platforms may have overshot their mark. The Anywhere Anytime model that Netflix popularized saw viewers inhale new series whole, and platforms raced to keep up with the endless demand for more content. A few years later, and the dust is beginning to settle. With streaming now the dominant mode of media consumption, the gold rush of the streaming era has given way to a more complicated, fragmented future for viewers and platforms alike.

Platforms Move Away from Binge-Watching

With so many new series to choose from across hundreds of streaming platforms, audiences are now spread thinner than ever, with most viewers watching a small handful of shows at any given time. This means that platforms are increasingly varying their release schedules and formats to draw audiences in.

Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and many other streamers have increasingly moved away from the binge-watch model toward a mixed-release system in which some series might drop all at once while others drop sequentially, and others a few episodes at a time. Amazon Prime and Apple TV+ typically drop a few episodes at the beginning to hook viewers and then release succeeding episodes individually or in small batches, week by week. Even Netflix, the forerunner of the binge-watch model, has increasingly sought to vary its release schedules and foster a collective communal viewing experience. Its recent seasons of The Crown and Bridgerton have been split into halves, with the release of each half a month apart.

But with this new iteration of the weekly release schedule, viewers are losing the communal experience of binge-watching, and the cultural phenomenon that can result from it. More importantly, it's unclear if this shift is helping or hurting viewership numbers.

The Science of Binging vs. Weekly Releases

Market research firm Parrot Analytics studied streaming viewership habits based on different kinds of rollouts in the first quarter of 2023 and found that media released week by week gained far more viewing hours than binge-release media. Another market research firm, Samba, found that 68 percent of US adults identify themselves as binge-watchers, and 45 percent binge an entire show within the first five days of its release.

According to Samba, shows released in bulk had higher rates of retention, with an average of 66 percent completion rate for episodes, compared to an average of 59 percent for intermittent releases. Yet, that statistic explains why a platform like Netflix depends so heavily on constantly serving viewers new content; if they don't watch an entire show in the first week, they're less likely to go back to it.

But it's not all bad news for binge releases: Katz pointed to the phenomenon of shows like Squid Game and Baby Reindeer, which gained unprecedented success through word of mouth, as proof of the importance of binge releases for the Netflix model.

Genre and Release Format

Additionally, the choice of rollout schedule and format arguably plays a role in the genre of the show itself. It's no coincidence that the most binge-able shows tend to be thrillers with a touch of dark comedy. Dramas and thrillers are among the most-streamed and most-binged shows; in Parrot's analysis of shows from the first quarter of 2023, fully 50 percent of all binge-released shows in the top 100 were dramas. Another 33 percent were children's programming. Epic fantasies like The Mandalorian and House of the Dragon do well when they can build audience excitement from week to week. Comedies likewise tend to do their best in serial format and falter when they're released through binge rollouts.

The Future of Streaming: More Chaos?

But none of this variety fully explains how daunting all of these choices can feel. I asked Katz: Why is it all so overwhelming? Do we even have the space to properly process content? His answer surprised me.

"That's an interesting question," he replied. "I don't think there is space to absorb it all. I think that's okay, though, because that's where the true fans emerge."

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