Streaming Services Capitalize on the Most Wonderful Time of the Year to Binge-Watch

Netflix and Hulu are promoting originals to coincide with holiday downtime

The second season of You debuts on Netflix Dec. 26, when many Americans have extended time off work. - Credit by Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Getty Images, Netflix
Headshot of Kelsey Sutton

Hulu is banking its customers will spend at least part of their holiday breaks catching up on shows and movies. That’s why over next couple weeks, Hulu’s homepage won’t just highlight its holiday programming, but also prominently feature its growing slate of original series, including The Handmaid’s Tale.

The service promotes its own shows throughout the year, of course, but given how many people find themselves crowded around a TV with family or friends during the holidays, Hulu wants to make sure longtime subscribers and newcomers alike get the chance to catch up on any original programming they may have missed. It has rolled out a holiday brand campaign, “Home Is Where The Hulu Is.” In addition to surfacing holiday fare, Hulu released both the first season of drama Reprisal and the third season of Marvel teen drama Runaways this month.

Hulu’s approach, which coincides with the company’s release of a binge ad unit for advertisers, is an increasingly common one for streaming services during the holiday season. The extra time consumers have around the holidays is a gift to those platforms, who are taking advantage of the nationwide period of downtime—during which many people will be at home with family and friends—to get viewers hooked on their own shows.

Ratings spike during holiday refuge

It’s not just holiday-themed programming: streaming services are releasing or resurfacing originals of all kinds just in time for a holiday binge.

“These video on-demand platforms are promoting the chance to binge-watch either their original content or some of the licensed content they have in place of [traditional TV] marathons, because we no longer have appointment TV where you had to actually find out when things are on and schedule the time to watch it,” said Kevin Westcott, vice chairman, principal and US telecom, media and entertainment lead at the consultancy Deloitte. “The VOD platforms are using this time to promote the chance to catch up on their original content that maybe you didn’t see already.”

For years, the holidays have served as prime opportunity for cable television channels to capitalize on holiday viewership spikes. Broadcast schedulers planned programming marathons, holiday-themed reruns and even some premieres around the holidays; cable channels like Hallmark and Lifetime go all in on holiday-themed programming, ringing in cash both in ratings and in ad revenue. According to Nielsen, traditional live and time-shifted television from mid-December to early January is, on average, 8% higher than viewership from the end of September through mid-December.

“For television, the fall and winter are traditionally the most bountiful times for viewing in America,” said Peter Katsingris, svp audience insights, Nielsen. “Networks are airing their new and more popular content, and audiences, who might be looking for refuge from the cold weather, are more likely to watch them during this time.”

While streaming has reshaped the television landscape, consumer appetite for watching plenty of TV over the holidays hasn’t abated. Most major streaming services see an audience spike in November and December, according to figures the analytics firm SimilarWeb provided to Adweek.

In 2018, average monthly traffic to Netflix was 6.3% higher in November and December compared to the rest of the year. The figures were even higher for Hulu, which saw a 29.4% traffic spike those two months, and Amazon Prime Video, whose traffic in the same time period was a whopping 83.6% higher than the rest of the year. SimilarWeb found those services also enjoyed higher-than-usual daily active users on their apps.

Netflix’s holiday discovery and Disney+’s rising releases 

Over the last few years, Netflix has found big audiences for its programming released right around the holidays. It was a discovery the streaming service first made in 2015, when Making a Murderer dropped on Dec. 18 of that year. Lisa Nishimura, now Netflix’s vp of independent film and documentary features, told Adweek at the time that the docuseries’ release date had been chosen with great care.

“As we were producing the episodes, it became very clear that they demand your attention, they’re very dense,” Nishimura said. “And as you watch it, it really inspires in one a desire to talk about it, to commune with other people about it. To bounce theories and ideas and just try to process. And we know that the holiday season is one that allows more freedom of time.”

Also, Nishimura added, people want to test out their new TVs and other screens they have received as holiday gifts, and streaming shows offer them the perfect opportunity to do so.

Netflix continued to lean into that holiday strategy in December 2017, when the streaming service released the Will Smith drama Bright, which reportedly attracted 11 million viewers in its first three days. A year later, the Sandra Bullock thriller Birdbox was viewed by 26 million accounts within the first seven days of its Dec. 21 release, Nielsen said. (It’s worth noting Nielsen only measures the 75-80% of Netflix’s U.S. viewership that occurs through connected TV devices; Netflix, which disputes Nielsen’s metrics, only selectively releases its own viewership figures.)

Last year, Netflix also saw a huge holiday bump for Season 1 of the drama You, which had barely made a splash that fall on Lifetime. When it moved to Netflix on Dec. 26, 2018, the streaming service told shareholders the show was on track to be viewed by more than 40 million accounts within a four-week span. You, now a Netflix original series, will return with Season 1 on—you guessed it—Dec. 26. Netflix declined several requests for comment about its holiday strategy.

Disney+, which did not respond to requests for comment, may also see an audience surge this holiday season, especially as almost the entire catalogue of Star Wars films has been available on the service leading up to the theatrical release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment of the decades-long film franchise.

In a move seemed poised to capitalize on both the holiday audience bump and The Rise of Skywalker, the service will release the tenth and final episode of the first season of its acclaimed Star Wars series The Mandalorian just two days after Christmas, on Dec. 27.


@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.
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