Binge-watching isn't always better: A case against Netflix's Making a Murderer release strategy
Early in 2015, viewers were engrossed in The Jinx, HBO's documentary series about the case of Robert Durst, an accused killer and heir to the Durst family real estate fortune.
Durst was a tremendously compelling character; enigmatic and mercurial; a man with immense wealth and privilege who had been implicated in the death of three separate people all over the country. The show came just a few months after the debut of the tremendously popular podcast, Serial, which looked back at, and investigated, a 1999 Baltimore murder and subsequent prosecution.
Now, Netflix has joined in on the fun.
In late December, the streaming site released all ten episodes of Making a Murderer, a documentary series about justice and injustice in a small Wisconsin county. The series revolves around a man named Steven Avery, who grew up and lived in circumstances nearly opposite to those of Durst. Avery grew up in poverty; he would be falsely accused (I would say framed) of rape; spend 18 years in prison; be exonerated through DNA testing; sue the county; become ensnared in a separate murder investigation; be accused and convicted for that separate murder under suspicious circumstances.
The series differs greatly from both The Jinx and Serial. The show itself feels like a novel with multiple protagonists (Avery and his lawyers, Brendan Dassey) and multiple antagonists (Colborn and Lenk, Kratz), and an impossible and infuriating story. Serial doesn’t exactly have that antagonist-Jay is more curious than anything-and in the Jinx, Durst functions as both, although by the end his role is clear.
The release of Making a Murderer was also structurally different. Netflix, of course, releases all its episodes at once and their impetus for doing so is clear: it’s a nice feature to allow viewers to choose the pace at which they want to watch a show (AKA: it encourages binge-watching). Netflix also uses this tactic to differentiate itself from linear television, which it aims to supplant as the dominant content provider.
The question has been asked in the past for Netflix hits like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, but it may ring more true for Making a Murderer: Does releasing one episode each week may make more sense than all at once?
The allure of true-crime is the intrigue, which is built into the subject matter itself. Investigations, accusations, and adjudications are climactic by design. They build upon one another until, literally, reaching a verdict. Combine the natural arc of criminal investigations with the realities of a America’s unique and often toxic criminal justice system, and the story writes itself. Steven Avery’s case exemplifies that reality. Even Syed’s case, which is not terribly unique within our criminal justice system, is remarkably compelling when looked at closely.
With Making A Murderer, it does feel as though releasing all episodes at once mitigates the intrigue on a macro level. Instead of everyone watching, following, and discussing the show over the course of 10 weeks, the discussion feels scattered. On the flip side, to ask it bluntly: does it even make a difference? The world is talking about the series. News outlets have been covering it. Even though people are still getting through the series, the demonstrated staying power simply means that new viewers add on to existing conversation. It’s like a ripple effect; instead of the bomb at the end of The Jinx, Making a Murderer feels like a collection of small explosions that seem to be building upon one another.
I think the question isn’t whether more people would be talking about the series or whether the impact would be greater (I don’t think it makes a huge difference), but rather, would the collective viewing experience be better if everyone watched an episode, discussed it, and then talked the entire week about the next episode?
Netflix’s platform gives it flexibility. It doesn’t have to release one episode each week. It could release two per week or release one per day over a ten day span; it could even release the first five episodes weekly and then release the remaining ones at once - letting early buzz build and then driving a binge-watching frenzy at the end.
Netflix has been immensely successful through change and innovation; a small adjustment could make all the difference.