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WandaVision and the Renewed Case for Weekly, Serialized TV

There are reasons why serialized, weekly content has existed for so long. Repeated behaviors develop routines. Extending the time of exposure to a show extends the time you’re interested in it. Where applicable, it obviously benefits advertisers over the course of a season or mini=series run as well.

As social media has increasingly become part of how we watch TV, that case has only gotten stronger. Lost was perhaps the initial impetus for a TV fan experience full of weekly guessing, mysteries and fan theories. The lightning in a bottle there has been a goal of many series since, from original IP like Mad Men, or BIG franchises like Game of Thrones.

Creating an interesting property audiences want to watch intently is an important part, of course. But if you can figure that out, the serial format is clearly superior in terms of maintaining your spot in the zeitgeist, and fueling constant and never-ending fan speculation and a thirst for more content.

It’s with this idea in mind that Marvel presented WandaVision to the world back in January on Disney+. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first foray into TV (the Netflix shows and Agents of Shield don’t count) was weird and mysterious and not at all what fans of the blockbuster Marvel franchise were used to. And yet, despite that, two B-tier characters and some twists delivered increasing fan interest week over week among diehards and casuals alike.

Data from Tubular Labs shows over 2.6 billion views around WandaVision and Marvel content on YouTube alone this year. While there was worry about how a 17-month break and a strange show to restart with could affect the fan base, it ends up that the constant questions and theories that surrounded WandaVision was the perfect vehicle for the MCU’s return.

As pointed out on “The Watch” this week, with Marvel’s properties, Disney’s mastered the secret to TV success — years before it even brought those heroes to TV. “You can always win if you never land at all,” the idea goes. Marvel did that with WandaVision and its host of unresolved clues at larger future plot points. It had already test-driven the idea for 23 movies before this too, with each film becoming equal parts action flick and marketing vehicle for the next one.

While most others making TV try to capture this sort of audience and fan momentum for years, the instances of it succeeding for a long period are fleeting. As mentioned, Lost did it. Mad Men did too, eventually. Game of Thrones did it, then completely what goodwill they had from it at the end. There are other examples — most notably, fellow Disney property The Mandalorian — but for Marvel, it’s not just dropping enough cliffhangers and Easter eggs to keep people interested. They’ve made the whole plane out of cliffhangers and Easter eggs.

That can be a frustrating experience for casual viewers, and even anecdotally, I’ve seen how Marvel’s approach has made it harder to get in the door at this point. Without true payoffs for a fan not willing to watch fan videos, read comics or Wikipedia, sitting through all of this year after year could be a struggle.

And yet, after Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all-time in 2019, fully on the back of fan service and in-universe references — Marvel doesn’t much care anymore. Nor does it have to.

Getting back to the greater point of this article, that’s why a weekly, serialized approach was a perfect match for WandaVision. By roping fans along week after week, hype built to a fever pitch by the end. Sure, that may have led to some disappointment. But if people were willing to invest like that for B-tier characters like Scarlet Witch and Vision, it’s worth wondering what they’ll do for bigger stars in the Marvel universe, too.

Obviously Marvel has its own IP-based advantages that make it a bit of a world apart that only Star Wars could potentially touch. Yet, the strong and compelling storytelling was what made it worth revisiting each week. Ted Lasso had its own weekly schedule on Apple TV+, and despite no established IP or wild fan theories, that show similarly energized a fan base by making them care. Not for one week or one weekend. But for a couple months on end.

There are exceptions to what should be a weekly serial and what shouldn’t be, of course. Not everything should be one or the other. Yet, the Netflix-ization of TV lately — especially as more and more TV moves to streaming platforms — allowed many to lose the plot.

By just dumping a whole season on your audience, you get a single bite at the apple, then it’s on to the next. Think about your own Netflix experience, and it’s a deluge of “new.” If you didn’t save something from a month ago, good luck finding it again later. Netflix’s binge-watch approach is great for singular moments of pop culture control. It’s not good for continued cultural relevance, or spending money judiciously (as their NEW machine cranks out tons of new content each week before moving on once again).

WandaVision, Ted Lasso and the Mandalorian are some of the many series weekly approaches have worked for lately, and they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. They just behaved like TV, instead of movies. You don’t even need to be as successful as those shows to do it, either. It just makes sense that spreading out your story over weeks and weeks, if compelling, is more likely to create a continued conversation.

Could WandaVision have generated that many YouTube views had the whole show dropped at once? Absolutely not. The weekly theory videos were a lifeblood of the fan interest, something that generated itself directly from the repeated cliffhanger endings.

Other recent shows like the Undoing, Little Fires Everywhere, Big Little Lies, Westworld, Succession… all of them have varying forms of success, IP recognition, mystery and online fan interest. But all have been able to exist beyond a one-week blip as well. Fandom drives interest. Interest drives algorithms. Algorithms drive what’s presented to consumers… so it would seem to make sense that services would opt for serialized content as they not only try to launch new services, but keep audiences around beyond the initial sign-up period.

It’s why an emphasis on movies alone is tough. Or why banking on a back catalog of on-demand content doesn’t have real staying power either. There’s strength in a comfort food approach, but it has to be your brand — the way it is for Discovery+. If not, failing to give your subscribers repeated weekly reasons to come back fails TV in a way that exhibits a distinct misunderstanding of the medium.

Netflix has been a dragon the industry’s chasing for years now, yet lost in that pursuit is the fact that Netflix isn’t necessarily in the TV business — and never really has been, in a traditional sense. Trying to mimic their flash-in-the-pan or binge-centric approaches means you’re probably not in the TV business either — not necessarily an option for the raft of network-backed streaming services that have come online in the last year or two.