On April 10, when Starz premieres limited series The Girlfriend Experience, about high-end girlfriends for hire, viewers will get more than the pilot. In fact, they’ll get all 13 episodes on opening night—on-demand and online. Very much a cable network, Starz’s Girlfriend release is yet another example of the binge culture of subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) moving well beyond that sector.
It’s a worthwhile experiment for Starz. “There are a lot of dynamics in terms of how people consume,” says David Baldwin, executive VP of program planning. “We need to make sure we know about all of them.”
Three years after Netflix’s House of Cards brought “binge” into the TV lexicon, the concept is everywhere. This is Starz’s third such experiment, after season 3 of Da Vinci’s Demons and last fall’s Flesh and Bone. From NBC’s binge release of Aquarius last spring, to TBS’ 25-hour “binge-a-thon” of Angie Tribeca in January, to FX running five straight commercial-free episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson March 5, bingeing is hardly limited to Netflix and Amazon.
“I’ve heard countless stories from viewers who may have had a pejorative opinion of [Real Housewives],” says Doug Ross, CEO of production outfit Evolution Media, about Bravo’s series marathons. “They accidentally hook up with it one weekend, and next thing you know, they’ve watched 14 episodes and are completely hooked.”
Keeping Consumption ‘Casual’
Yet some would prefer to keep appointment airings in place. Liz Tigelaar, showrunner on Hulu’s Casual, mentions weekly writers’ room discussions of The People v. O.J.; a traditional release, she says, makes for more of a “watercooler experience.” And so she’s fine with Hulu releasing Casual weekly, same as 11/22/63, The Mindy Project and other Hulu originals. “There’s something about anticipation,” Tigelaar says. “I like it when someone gives me boundaries.”
Multiple showrunners cop to mixed feelings about having an entire season consumed like a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Eric Overmyer, showrunner on Amazon’s Bosch, notes how his wife devoured all ten episodes of the new season—in one night. “I said, wait—I worked on that for 10, 11 months and it’s over in a weekend,” he says. “It’s a little odd to work on something for so long, only to have people watch it so fast.”
The binge trend has affected production, say producers, with less time spent on last week’s recap. And all-at-once releasing raises production challenges to a new level of anxiety. Besides having all episodes ready for week 1, story lines can’t be tweaked midseason due to audience reaction, marketing does not pivot as the plot points progress and social media buzz comes and goes quickly.
“There are more issues to address in a shorter period of time,” says Eric Berger, Sony Pictures Television executive VP of digital and GM of Crackle, where unscripted shows such as Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee are weekly while more serialized ones, such as The Art of More, are bingeable.
Baldwin admits Starz doesn’t know for sure if the binge model makes the most business sense, but each new test means a fresh batch of data. “Unique circumstances” dictate what gets a binge release, he adds. Having filmmaker Steven Soderbergh at the helm of The Girlfriend Experience was one such circumstance. “[Bingeing] fits his type of storytelling,” Baldwin says. “The series plays like a 13-part movie.”
REALITY BEGATS DOCUSERIES, SAYS EVOLUTION BOSS
Is there a trendier genre than the docuseries? Recent debutants include Cooked on Netflix, The New Yorker Presents on Amazon, 60 Days In on A&E and truInsider on truTV. Then there’s Nick Cannon’s Like a Boss, about “the subculture of assistants” amidst Atlanta’s movers and shakers, says Doug Ross, CEO of series producer Evolution Media. It debuts March 29.
Just don’t call them reality. Speaking with The New York Times about her new E! series Mariah’s World, Mariah Carey said, “I refuse to call it a reality show.”
The rise of the docuseries represents a shift from reality’s trashy trappings and a hat-tip to the wildly popular TV documentaries, be it HBO’s The Jinx or Netflix’s Making a Murderer, say Evolution’s principals. “Viewers are tired of being told something is real when it’s not,” said Alex Baskin, executive VP of development.
Promo materials for Like a Boss refer to the assistants as “future moguls.” Will people care to watch the harried young busybody behind the boss? “It’s been pitched many times,” said Ross, “but it’s never really been done right.”