When streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon first arrived, their great selling point was the ability to binge watch whole seasons – or boxsets – in an evening.
This, we were told, gave the newcomers a USP over the traditional, ‘old fashioned’ broadcasters who the streamers hoped to replace in our affections.
But this previously much touted feature is slowing being downplayed as the streaming services move away from offering back catalogues of relatively cheap archive shows and focus instead on bringing members original and first run content which costs a lot more to produce and promote.
Where new shows are commissioned directly by the services – House of Cards (Netflix), or Man in the High Castle (Amazon) the services are still, for now, largely happy for users to binge watch a season of a given show for a single month’s money – or even a free trial – and then cancel their subscription.
But already there are exceptions – Amazon’s highly anticipated The Grand Tour is going to be streamed weekly so that only those who pay an ongoing monthly or annual subscription will be able to see the episodes when new. Anyone wanting to watch for a single month’s cash will need to wait until the series ends early next year to sign up.
Given the sums Amazon are reported to have paid Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, it’s hardly surprising the firm has taken this approach.
For its part, Netflix released only half of the episodes for The Get Down – though some reports blame production delays for at least part of this decision – meaning any lapsed subscribers will need to sign up again to watch the whole season.
Both services are also required to follow the broadcast schedules for any big shows they buy in from major US broadcasters and producers, meaning new episodes of Scream (Netflix) and Unreal (Amazon) are only available one per week.
This breaks the boxset USP on which the services made their name and removes what was meant to be their big advantage over the established players.
For fans of Netflix’s Designated Survivor the situation is even further removed from those initial promises of watching what you wanted, when you wanted.
Breaks in the show’s US transmission means fans have had to wait two weeks to see episode 5 and then have to wait until November 10th for episode 6. Episode 7 does then debut on November 17th, but the subsequent episodes are currently listed for some unspecified point in December.
In countries such as the UK where the norm is for broadcasters to screen an entire series week after week with no gaps, this sporadic release of a big name series isn’t just shifting away from Netflix’s original USP, it’s delivering a worse viewing experience than the ‘old fashioned’ linear TV the service was meant to be freeing us from.
Of course, a lot of fans will be happy to see the show close to its US premiere and its presence on Netflix will help limit demand for any pirated copies, benefitting the series’ copyright holders who are clear winners from the show’s early availability.
But Designated Survivor is a good example of how the streaming services’ push to offer new, original and first run content is disrupting their own core selling feature.
Amazon and Netflix remain a lot cheaper than traditional pay-TV services which means they retain a competitive advantage for now, but it’s clear that bidding against established networks for new material and the need to recoup investment on expensive original commissions is forcing significant changes on their business models.
With both signalling further investment in first run content, it’s possible that within a few years the ability to binge watch is largely restricted to back seasons and that users will need to keep on paying month after month to watch the latest episodes of their favourite shows.
The future of pay-TV might yet end up looking a lot like its past.