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Netflix today said smash hit Stranger Things will wrap after five seasons, while also announcing the upcoming fourth season of the show will be seen in two parts. It’s not uncommon for networks and platforms to split seasons, but usually, there are four, six, or eight months between halves. But with Stranger Things, the two “volumes” of season four will drop on May 27 and July 1, just five weeks apart. This isn’t the move to a weekly cadence so many Netflix skeptics believe is necessary to keep subscribers from churning out — but it’s definitely a slight adjustment to the binge model for Netflix.
By releasing season four in two batches, Netflix will effectively be doubling, or possibly even tripling, the pop-culture shelf life of its biggest franchise. Normally, if it’s released all at once, even a big title like Stranger Things resonates through the Zeitgeist for two to three weeks before we all move on to the next show. Now, however, it seems a safe bet discussion around the show will range from mid-May (all those previews and recaps of season three) until mid-to-late July. Instead of coming and going within the space of a month, the Stranger Things conversation could last for perhaps eight to ten weeks — or exactly the length of a standard ten-episode streaming or cable series with a weekly release model.
Not by accident, this move has also been timed to give Netflix new Stranger Things content in both its second and third financial quarters, letting the show serve as a subscriber and retention tool during both periods. Also, given Netflix measures its “ratings” in 28-day cycles, the move lets the streamer maximize viewership for both cycles, and it will give the series a chance at landing on Netflix’s all-time audience chart twice with one season.
And then there’s the matter of Emmys. By getting the first half of the season into the world before the May 31 cutoff date, Netflix will be able to enter the series in competition for the 2022 drama race and the 2023 cycle. Given 2023’s race will feature the first seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones spinoff House of the Dragon and Prime Video’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power — two big-budget spectaculars in the same class as Stranger Things — it could be smart for Netflix’s aging hit to jump in now before the competition gets even more difficult next year. The timing also means the first volume of ST4 will be hitting screens just as Emmy voters begin deciding which shows to nominate, while the second volume hits four days after nomination voting closes. In other words, the release schedule couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to maximize the show’s Emmy potential.
This is not to say Netflix absolutely settled on this release strategy because of Emmys or even because it felt it needed to maximize the value of the show by turning one season into two events. The Duffer brothers are pretty important figures in the Netflix universe, and I’m sure they had a major say in determining how the episodes will be released. In their note to fans announcing the news, they mentioned that this season is nearly twice as long as past cycles, which would suggest these nine episodes represent more than 14 hours of storytelling. That’s a lot to process in a binge, so giving audiences a chance to digest it in slightly smaller chunks just makes sense.
Netflix has split seasons of a few shows in the past. Several unscripted shows, including the current season of Love Is Blind, are now released over three to four weeks. And among scripted shows, Lupin came out in two chunks last year, while Chilling Adventures of Sabrina split its freshman season. But in those two cases, at least six months separated the episodes, effectively making them two short seasons. Whatever the actual reasons for the ST4 scheduling, there’s never been a Netflix-produced scripted series this big released in this way. At the very least, it should give Netflix — which loves nothing more than testing new features — some valuable data about what happens when every episode of a season isn’t released all at once.