The best part about watching something on a streaming service has always been the ability to watch what you want when you want to watch it.
Those of us who can remember life before Netflix will recall having to wait an entire week to continue watching a favourite show. The studios would often end each episode on a cliffhanger to ensure we'd all remember to tune in the following week.
"Appointment viewing" was necessary because traditional cable television depends on predictable schedules: if "Cheers", "Family Ties", and "Beverly Hills 90201" weren't scheduled to air on the same day and at the same time every week, finding those shows would be next to impossible and an audience for each show would be difficult to maintain.
Netflix's on-demand nature changed all that.
By developing a platform that allowed instant access to a comprehensive library of content, then abandoning the idea of "appointment viewing" and releasing entire seasons (and often, entire series) all at once, Netflix enabled us to watch as many or as few episodes each day as we wished. And we liked it!
Of course, there are two obvious business challenges to a full-release approach.
The first is that dropping a season all at once only allows for a continuous buzz if you're reasonably sure the audience is going to binge-watch everything at roughly the same pace. If I watch the entire second season of "Squid Game" on the first weekend it premieres, and you watch two episodes each week until you're done, we're going to have a difficult time having conversations about the show... so we probably won't.
The second is that if a streaming service releases an entire 10-episode season all at once instead of over 10 weeks, then there's no need for us to subscribe to the streaming service for 10 weeks. We can subscribe for a single month, binge-watch the entire series in a few days, and then cancel... repeating the process the next time the streamer releases a show we want to consume. That has a clear impact on subscriber revenue.
Disney, who had decades of experience with traditional television shows and 12 years to study Netflix's streaming service before launching Disney+, decided to do things differently.
When Disney+ released a show, they would release only one episode on the premiere date (occasionally two, to get us hooked), then make viewers wait a full week before another episode became available. Want to watch "The Mandalorian" as it unfolds? You need to subscribe to Disney+ for at least two months to see all eight episodes of the first season.*
Disney's approach was less consumer-friendly but much better from a revenue standpoint.
However, since Disney created shows exclusively for their Disney+ streaming service, they could allow fans to access the next episode of a favourite show at any time on release day.
I had to wait until Wednesday each week to watch the latest episode of "She-Hulk", but because Disney would release the show at midnight, I could choose to watch while I exercised before starting work, at lunchtime while I ate, after school with the kids, or at night after the kids have gone to bed. I couldn't choose the date, but I could choose the time.
Now let's talk about "Yellowstone", the breakout hit series from Taylor Sheridan now on its fifth season.
My wife and I decided to "cut the cord" and abandon traditional cable television over a decade ago, but those who didn't can find "Yellowstone" on the Paramount Network, with new episodes arriving every Sunday at 8 pm Eastern Time.
But as Paramount+ subscribers, my wife and I have to wait until 9 pm.
I can think of only one reason why Paramount would treat Paramount+ subscribers as second-class viewing citizens, not only forcing us to endure "appointment viewing" but also making that appointment an hour later than what cable company subscribers get to enjoy: the cable companies that carry the Paramount Network demand it.
After all, "Tulsa King" (a highly entertaining show starring Sylvester Stallone as a New York mob capo sent to live and earn in Oklahoma after serving 25 years in prison) is listed as a "Paramount+ Original"... and Paramount+ subscribers don't have to wait until a certain time to access new episodes each week. The show is only available on Paramount+, so Paramount+ gets to decide how it gets released.
Amazon, Apple, Disney, and Netflix can all control when and how content is released on their respective streaming platforms: they create their own content that isn't available outside of their own platforms, and when they license content from others, they use their massive scale to negotiate favourable terms.
But smaller streaming platforms like Paramount+ that license content to cable companies? Things are more complicated for them.
That's because, today, Paramount likely earns a lot more revenue from the companies that distribute their content (i.e. the cable companies) than it does by distributing that content themselves via Paramount+. And it's a terrible idea to bite the hand that feeds you if you don't have another ample food source available to sustain you.
Those cable companies likely believe the ability to watch "Yellowstone" an hour earlier via a cable subscription is one reason consumers might choose to maintain their Paramount Network subscriptions (from them) instead of simply subscribing to Paramount+ directly, so perhaps they negotiated a one-hour headstart into their licensing contracts with Paramount.
And why would Paramount willingly agree to such terms? The same reason you might willingly agree to hand your wallet to a mugger holding a knife: self-preservation.
But by forcing Parmount+ subscribers to wait longer for new episodes than cable company subscribers, Paramount is treating Parmount+ subscribers as second-class consumers.
And that's no way to effectively compete in the streaming wars.**
* Disney also did a great job of staggering releases of different exclusive series. To use one example, the final episode of the second season of "The Mandalorian" aired on November 27th, 2020... but "Wandavision" premiered on January 15, 2021. For a Disney+ subscriber interested in both Star Wars and Marvel (and I'd expect the Venn Diagram on that one to look like a circle), would it make sense to cancel the service over the holidays just to resubscribe in time to see The Scarlett Witch's television debut? Probably not. Moreover, the final episode of Wandavision aired on March 5th, 2020... and the first episode of Marvel's "The Falcon and The Winter Solider" aired on March 19th, less than two weeks later. Disney correctly determined that releasing a steady stream of content, doled out slowly to retain subscribers (and their dollars), was a better approach than releasing everything at once.
** Especially since any given episode airing on television at 8 pm will usually be available to stream via popular torrent sites by 9:15 pm thanks to diligent pirates. Or so I've heard.