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How Does Hulu’s Release of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Compare to the Binging Experience?

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When Hulu released “The Handmaid’s Tale” on April 26, it took a different approach than the one now popularized by Netflix, which typically releases all episodes of a series at once in order to encourage binging. In contrast, Hulu only released the first three episodes on April 26, and is now releasing each of the following seven episodes on a weekly basis.

In short, you’re not going to be able to watch “The Handmaid’s Tale” all at once. Watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” will be a two-month experience, not a two-day experience. There are several important implications that this strategy has – both for Hulu and for TV viewers.

#1: It turns “The Handmaid’s Tale” into a shared viewing experience

If you think about the classic binging experience, it’s one that is typically a very solo experience. You may binge-watch with someone else in your household (such as a  spouse), but chances are, you’re watching the series at a different point in time than each of your friends. That makes it much more difficult to “compare notes” while the series is running. You can’t just go to work or school on a Monday after binging on a new Netflix series over the weekend and expect to find someone to discuss the show with.

Now compare that to the Hulu experience for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Here, a new episode is coming out every Wednesday. That means you know for sure that people will be talking about the show Thursday morning. If you don’t watch the show on Wednesday night, you will be missing out. And, in today’s digital world, there’s nothing worse than the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

This is a concept that Elisabeth Moss, who plays the handmaid Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” pointed out in an interview with Ad Week. According to Moss, there is definite value in being able to have the prototypical “water cooler conversation” the next day. From her perspective, that’s what helped make “Mad Men” (her previous TV series) so successful – people tuned in each week to see what was happening with Don Draper and the advertising execs of Madison Avenue, and then talked about it all throughout the week.

#2: It helps to signal what is “must-watch” TV

If you think about much of the content in Netflix’s movie and show catalog, it’s relatively old material. You’re not getting recent-release Hollywood movies and brand new TV shows. Therefore, none of it is really “must-watch TV.” While some of Netflix’s original programming – such as “House of Cards” or “Orange is the New Black” has established a certain reputation for quality  – nothing on Netflix is really content you have to watch TODAY or TONIGHT – you can watch whenever you want.

By changing the release schedule so that only one new episode comes out each week, Hulu is signaling to viewers that this show is must-watch TV. What makes this argument so particularly compelling for “The Handmaid’s Tale” is that the events taking place in the show – the rise of a totalitarian, post-modern United States – seems to be strangely foreshadowing or commenting on events already underway in the new post-Obama United States.

In other words, events that take place in the show each week seem to matter. They acquire a much higher importance, and are worthy of being talked about, if only from a speculative political and socio-economic perspective. The show has been such a hit for Hulu that women are now wearing red handmaid-like robes to political rallies. They are a symbol of the need for equal rights for women and a woman’s right to choice. That ties in precisely to one of the major plot lines of the Hulu show – that only a handful of fertile women exist, and they must subjugate their own freedoms and rights to the needs of society.

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#3: It differentiates Hulu from Netflix by highlighting live streaming TV

In the minds of most streaming video fans, Hulu is all about TV, and Netflix is all about movies. If you want the best new TV shows, you sign up for Hulu. And if you want the best archive of films, you sign up for Netflix. Thus, it is in Hulu’s interest to make sure that every new series that it releases helps to confirm this distinction between TV and movies. Hulu needs to become the un-Netflix..

And, what makes things really interesting is how Hulu has used the unique release timing to set up a new product launch. On May 3 – the first week that “The Handmaid’s Tale” reverted to a weekly release schedule – Hulu also announced the launch of “Hulu With Live TV” for $39.99. Thus, it’s possible to think of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a clever way to up-sell fans from the typical Hulu experience (at less than $10 per month) to a more premium “live TV” experience. And “The Handmaid’s Tale” becomes important proof of why it’s necessary to get live streaming TV.

#4: It makes it easier for fans to re-read the original book

Most people may know that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book of the same name. But how many people have actually read that book? That’s where the Hulu release schedule is so genius – it gives viewers enough of a flavor of the dystopian, totalitarian milieu described in the book with the first 3 episodes, and then gives viewers plenty of time to read (or re-read) the original book to really get a much more intense experience.

This, ultimately, makes it easier to hook viewers. How many times have you read a review of a Netflix original series, only to have the review say something like, “the series really only started to hit its stride in Episode 5.” But how many people are willing to give a show that much of a chance? With “The Handmaid’s Tale,” you don’t have the problem. People will be fully vested in the show.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to disagree with Elisabeth Moss when she says, “We should still make sure that there are a few shows that you can watch week by week.” And, without a question, “The Handmaid’s Tale’ is one of those shows. It’s compelling television that has an important story to tell. And that story just gets better and better with each passing week.

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