Barely a week goes by that a television network or streaming platform doesn’t release a TV show or movie.
But that wasn’t always the way, particularly in the summer. There were blockbuster movies, but television was a rerun wasteland.
Former The Tonight Show and Late Night writer Jon Rineman ‘05, affiliated faculty for Visual & Media Arts, remembers growing up without summer television content and what changed it.
“Reality TV was the catalyst for the year-round TV calendar,” said Rineman. “You would see American Idol, Last Comic Standing and America’s Got Talent [during the summer]. The thinking behind it is that families got together, and because you’re spending time with your family, you can get into juggling or ventriloquists. People saw that if they’d watch [reality TV], they’d probably watched scripted [shows] too.”
Along with reality TV, live events like professional wrestling and baseball’s home run derby, got executives thinking. Suddenly new television content started being pushed outside traditional release schedules. AMC had Mad Men and Breaking Bad, FX had Louis, Curb Your Enthusiasm was on HBO, and more, said Rineman.
Now streaming services put out content on varied schedules, on any day and at any time. Sometimes they drop whole seasons or a bunch of episodes at the same time, as with Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Executive-in-residence for Business and Creative Enterprises Robert Lyons said that the first TV summer shows did well because it was like throwing water into a desert. Advertisers were also able to reach more viewers than before.
“Then streaming happened and it blew the whole idea of the way things were,” said Lyons. “The streaming landscape includes Netflix, Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, Hulu, Amazon, Apple TV, and more.”
Lyons said there are three different species of streaming services.
Netflix is just a streaming service. Then there are conglomerates like Apple, Amazon, and Disney, where streaming is one part of their business.
“For Amazon, it’s part of their bundle package and it’s like lowly peanuts for them, so they can stay at the bar [to reach viewers],” said Lyons.
The third species includes cable companies like Comcast, Peacock, and Universal. Said Lyons, “Those are legacy businesses that are dwindling as people cut the cord and cable TV is dying. Those three are the same species, where the water in the tank is draining out.”
Lyons said that these days, media companies are experimenting with release schedules, and COVID only complicated the landscape.
The Batman was released theatrically on March 4, 2022, and released on HBO Max just six weeks later, on April 18. In 2021, Disney released Black Widow in theaters on July 9 and streamed it on Disney+ the same day for an extra $30. That led Black Widow star Scarlett Johahnsson to sue Disney for breach of contract. She said her pay was partly tied to the film’s box office performance. The lawsuit was eventually resolved.
“The players have all been experimenting with how to crack the code,” said Lyons. “The strategy depends upon the objective. Is it to gain subscribers? Maybe you do put it on streaming right away. To maximize revenue if you have a blockbuster, you might want to go theatrically [to start].”
Forget About It
Streaming TV shows are also having huge gaps between seasons. AMC’s Better Call Saul’s Season Five concluded on April 20, 2020, and Season Six debuted April 18, 2020, almost two years to the day.
Rineman said the large lapses between seasons causes some viewers to lose interest in the show and not remember what had happened in the prior season. And if you’re going back to re-watch shows to remember what happened, you’ve got to be careful so you don’t get spoiled with the new releases.
“Sometimes it drives me away from a show. If there’s a show I haven’t seen for a long time and comes back and it’s too hard to follow, I may not get back into it,” said Rineman. “I don’t remember them and I’m not invested.”
Rineman said COVID killed some movie theaters, but he expects a comeback for cinemas because nothing can replace that person-to-person connection of going to a theater, watching a film with an audience while eating popcorn.
While movie theaters battle back to relevance after COVID, streaming services are duking it out amongst themselves, Lyons said. There’s intense pressure to thin the herd of streaming services, he said, and we’ll see consolidations because there isn’t enough revenue per household.
“One of the questions is, what’s the strategy? Maybe quality over quantity? Are a few good things better than a bunch of mediocre things?” said Lyons. “Netflix has had a content storm strategy by making three new things a week and blasting them out. They’re putting studios in Spain, Turkey, and Mexico to play the game at a global level. I’m not sure that will work. Personally, I think there’s an advantage for conglomerates, and that there’s a downside to being a pioneer.”