Tomorrow is THE day—the final season of Game of Thrones is upon us! To think this mega-hit is coming to an end is causing major heartburn for many a dragon lover. HBO has laid claim on our Sunday nights, preserving the endangered shared cultural moment (a fading species, as we discussed last week).
HBO has done an amazing job of building anticipation between episodes and seasons, making America plan its weekends around Sunday nights...which I personally love. But at the same time, it's also SO satisfying to binge watch a whole season in one weekend, racing through to the end of the story.
What's crazy is binge-watching has only been a thing for about six years, starting with House of Cards, and now it's how we live our lives. When Netflix first made this bold move, many people thought it was a mistake because they'd be missing out on "the kind of sustained conversations that help a show find its widest possible audience."
This got me thinking—is HBO's model of releasing episodes over time more or less effective than Netflix's model of dropping all episodes at once? And psychologically, does one method vs. the other make us more passionate about a show?
Let's find out! For this article, I've chosen to compare Game of Thrones to Stranger Things knowing both shows have created similar gargantuan fandom and are paid services, but have different viewing experiences.
A few caveats—obviously these are entirely different genres and have a different amount of seasons released, so when answering if one is driving more interest, buzz and viewers it's not a perfect comparison.
In looking at Google Trends since both shows' launches, it starts to reveal a very interesting story.
At first glance, GoT dwarfs ST interest. But let's dig deeper.
ST season 1 (S1) actually peaked higher than the first two seasons of GoT. Interest for ST S2 more than doubled from S1, peaking around the same levels that GoT S1-S5 did, meaning that ST gained the same ground in less than half the time it took for GoT.
GoT S7's interest peak was double the height of ST S2, but it took much longer to get there.
What about the volume of interest? Even though ST episodes were released all at once, seasons 1 and 2 drove more volume of interest than the first two GoT seasons. But, as GoT grew season over season, you can start to see their weekly episode strategy paying off; there was a higher volume of interest spread over a longer period of time from S3 onward, taking up our headspace for around four months on average.
Ok so we know we know about search interest, but what about social buzz? As you can see from the chart below, GoT S7 did have higher social volume across a longer time period. What's incredible though is that ST drove more than half of the number of mentions as GoT and it's only in its second season.
If we follow these same trend lines for ST S3 (launching on July 4th, so you might as well just give up going outside now), ST's impact will reach similar heights as GoT in a much shorter time
Why does buzz even matter in this case? Sure, it's great to create social conversation, but does that actually affect viewership? Why yes, yes it does.
The most important question in the entertainment industry is, "how do I get as many viewers as possible", and subsequently, "how do I drive buzz for my show"? Because accepted wisdom is that buzz drives viewership, especially in this day and age.
But don't just take my word for it. According to the entertainment study I spearheaded, over half of 13-34-year-olds will try out a show if other people are talking about it, and a quarter of 25-34-year-olds will watch the WHOLE season of a show they don't even like just to keep up with conversation. Talk about FOMO.
Buzz is incredibly powerful because it is a conversation multiplier—it adds fuel to the watercooler fire making it exponentially grow, creating a domino effect. Think about it, the more people you hear talking about a new, amazing show, the more you consider it and then finally give in once you reach your threshold.
This example is no exception of buzz's impact—according to Nielsen, the first episode of ST S2 had more viewers than GoT S7's season finale. There are a ton of issues with how Nielsen measures (doesn't account for streams on other platforms or global viewership) but either way, that's impressive!
Now for the psychological stuff. Is delayed or instant gratification more *gratifying* and how does that relate to TV?
Both have similar effects, releasing dopamine in our brains, but the level of intensity is different. Delayed gratification allows you to experience pleasure for a longer time because it "combines the anticipation with the pleasure of the event itself" according to Changing Minds. Instant gratification, on the other hand, is clearly not as lasting, but one could argue that it creates a more intense gratification.
Psychologist Dr. Renee Carr describes that "when binge-watching your favorite show, your brain is continually producing dopamine, and your body experiences a drug-like high. You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show." Our feelings get so intense that when a show is over, experts say we "literally mourn a loss", creating high highs and low lows.
It's worth mentioning that instant gratification lovers are "less able to control impulses and are more susceptible to temptation and possibly addiction" and being able to delay gratification is "one of the most effective personal traits of successful people", according to Psychology Today. Arguably, it's becoming harder than ever to delay gratification because of the ubiquitous on-demand world around us. If we have the option to get it right now, why wouldn't we?
So, finally, is the delayed gratification found in HBO's strategy more effective than the instant gratification found in Netflix's strategy? While Netflix shows occupy our minds for less time, it captures our hearts on a much deeper level. If we extrapolate the findings from today, it seems that Netflix is able to create a more intense fandom and grow it faster. From a business perspective, it allows them to invest in fewer seasons of shows and more into entirely new ones.
This has paid off in spades from a brand perspective. Because Netflix has something for everyone, it has become the #1 favorite content provider for all age groups (besides 66+). Conversely, HBO is only the #3 favorite for the 25-34 year old group.
What does this all mean? Taking everything into account, I love getting to binge watch a show. It's completely immersive and a total escape. But the more I binge watch, the more I miss having a weekly TV ritual. It's nice to have something to look forward to and talk about with friends over the course of a few months. It will be interesting to see how content providers continue to innovate with new shows and ways of releasing them, and in the meantime, the entertainment landscape's battle for the throne will rage on.