Four thirty in the morning is a strange time to drop the series premiere of a hotly anticipated show.
Stranger still, it was actually the season finale of the new podcast S-Town that appeared first in iTunes’ podcast store. Like antique clockwork, every 15 minutes until 6:00 a.m., another episode dropped — seven in all.
In many ways, S-Town—the latest production from the dream team of audio storytellers behind This American Life and Serial—is an unusual, groundbreaking show. It was billed as a natural successor to the first season of Serial, the hit show many credit with launching the podcast renaissance we’re currently living in, but it’s better treated as more of a distant cousin. What starts off as a murder mystery very quickly transitions into something else entirely and, well, you should do yourself a favor and give it a listen.
I am not here to talk about the narrative arc of S-Town, though. I want to talk about that strange 4:30 a.m. rollout. What gives?
That question has a technical answer and a philosophical one. Despite the growing appetite for podcasts, Apple has managed to retain the largest share of podcast listeners by several orders of magnitude. By some estimates, more than 80 percent of podcast listeners listen on an iPhone, and of that group, more than three quarters use Apple’s built-in Podcasts app to manage their shows, despite an abundance of free (and better) alternatives. So when a new show debuts, it must be tailored with the technical demands of Apple’s Podcasts app in mind. It’s for this reason that Episode 7 of S-Town went live first: the app displays new episodes in reverse chronological order, so when people woke up Tuesday morning and opened their app, Episode 1 was at the top of their list of unplayed episodes, not Episode 7.
That’s the technical solution, but it’s one necessitated by the philosophical choice made by the show’s producers: to drop the entire season all at once.
For years, we’ve been binge-watching entire seasons of Orange is the New Black and Transparent over a single weekend, but S-Town might be the first instance of a podcast designed to be consumed over a period of days instead of months.
“It was an aesthetic decision,” said Julie Snyder, one of S-Town’s producers. This American Life and Serial—Snyder is also a producer at both—adhere to the traditional weekly format, both out of necessity (This American Life is still a radio show, after all) and a desire to enhance the narrative. But S-Town felt different. “It didn’t feel like that did anything to make the story experience better,” she said. “This wasn’t that kind of story, it’s a little bit more of a ruminating novel. The world of it was very specific.”
Like its predecessor Serial, S-Town is a case study in investigative journalism. Producer and host Brian Reed spent years digging into a story sent in by a listener to This American Life, taking trips to the titular “Shit-town” in rural Alabama and speaking to dozens of people along the way. And like Serial, S-Town probes serious accusations and presents carefully constructed theories of its own. But unlike Serial, S-Town leaves little room for conversation, either within the show itself or on the periphery.
Halfway through their first season, the makers of Serial found themselves fielding new information in real time, prompting them to tweak episodes they had been working on for months in a matter of days. With S-Town, revelations from episode one had no bearing on episode six.
“That was one of the main considerations,” said Snyder. “In the story, there are a lot of accusations. If we were a weekly show, everybody has to go back to the people in the show for comment and it would disrupt the production schedule.” If Serial is the unfolding news story, S-Town is the full-length magazine feature.
But when your subjects lose the ability to engage, so too does your audience. When the first season of Serial debuted, it quickly spawned an entire cottage industry of fan sites. Subreddits sprang up wholly dedicated to discussing and unraveling every episode. Adnan Syed’s guilt or innocence was the water cooler topic du jour in office parks around the country. There were even entire podcasts created solely to discuss the podcast. In other words, Serial’s success as a podcast manifested itself in much the same way a successful television drama does: by dominating the cultural conversation for months as listeners eagerly waited for the next episode to come out.
You can expect to hear and read a lot about S-Town and how great it is in the coming days. But what will its staying power be a week from now, when there’s nothing new waiting for you when you wake up on Tuesday morning?
Binging is hardly a new phenomenon in television. Since Netflix began producing its own programming, audiences—particularly younger audiences—have grown accustomed to being able to watch three, four, or five episodes in a single sitting.
“When people are allowed to consume what makes them happy, they have more enjoyment,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, the director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “I don’t need someone to tell me when I’m ready for the next chapter…We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of having our own agency and the ability to act.”
Studies bear this out. Consulting firm Deloitte found that 70 percent of U.S consumers binge watch at least some television, and on average, binge watchers plow through five episodes in a single sitting.
This shift hasn’t done away with traditional episodes, though. On Netflix, shows like House of Cards are still broken up into hour-long episodes. Even S-Town adheres to a traditional episodic format, with slight variations in length between episodes but all falling between 45 and 65 minutes.
Why even bother with producing distinct episodes if people are choosing to consume media by binge-watching? Snyder likens it to the chapters of a book. It’s an apt comparison, and one that speaks to the way we’ve consumed stories since long before television, according to Dr. Rutledge.
“An episode, like a chapter, has some psychological meaning,” she said. “You expect it to have some kind of resolution, some kind of rising action, some kind of conflict. Something is going on that makes sense in the course of the larger story.”
Even if television networks wanted to mimic binging when releasing prestige shows—one can imagine AMC releasing an entire new season of The Walking Dead over a fall weekend, for example—there are business considerations that keep them from doing so. Networks are able to sell ads against their highest rated shows for months when a 22-episode season is spread out week to week. And although Netflix notoriously declines to release any viewership numbers for its content, it’s not hard to imagine a show steadily losing viewers from hour to hour as people get burnt out. Networks, on the other hand, can (and do) tweak their marketing to build audiences as a season progresses.
But even when business concerns aren’t a factor, networks also have editorial concerns about the binging model.
“We feel the best way to grow our audience is to embrace the viewer’s enthusiasm for weekly discussion around the virtual watercooler,” said Stephen Boulton-Wallace, the senior vice president of Consumer Insights & Analysis at HBO, the premium cable channel that doesn’t run ads. “This is especially true in our dramas. If you look at three of our most recent — The Night Of, Westworld and Big Little Lies — you can see social engagement around the shows grow as each progresses. That chatter then drives word of mouth. The results are more viewers visiting our various platforms to catch up on what they feel they’ve been missing. We don’t believe that would be happening at the same level if the all episodes were made available at once.”
HBO’s Game of Thrones is another example. Like Serial, entire subcultures emerge around every new season of GOT, from podcasts to reaction videos to entire television shows about the television show.
Compare that to Netflix’s equally well-received Stranger Things, which debuted last year. Try to think of one conversation you had between episodes of Stranger Things that didn’t involve either spoiling a later episode for someone else or having an episode spoiled. When everyone watches at his or her own pace, communal enjoyment becomes harder.
Unless, of course, you treat it like a book.
Dr. Rutledge is quick to point out that doling out new chapters in a story week-by-week on television (and radio drama before that) was itself a new phenomenon a century ago.
“Episodic television was a disruption of an older model, which we refer to as the book,” she said. “When Dickins was first published, we were allowed to read Dickens all at once if we wanted to.”
“There are still book clubs, there are still best sellers, reading clubs that get together,” Rutledge added. “I don’t see that community being deterred at all by the ability to control the media.”
If anyone wants to form a podcast club for future seasons of S-Town, my contact information is at the top.