Why are Australians waiting for The Handmaid's Tale?

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in The Handmaids Tale
Image - SBS

Last week, SBS announced that they had secured the rights for the highly-anticipated adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for their streaming platform SBS On Demand.

The critically-acclaimed drama, set in a dystopian future in which fertile women serve as handmaidens to high-ranking government officials, is a good fit for SBS. The network also has the rights to high profile shows including Fargo and Atlanta.

Australian viewers, however, will have to wait until July 8 to (binge) watch The Handmaid’s Tale, 3 weeks after the season finale in the United States.

This delay is the latest instance of Australians having to wait months to watch prestige television months after it initially airs, which has become a larger problem in the era of streaming video on demand.

The decision to delay The Handmaid’s Tale until July allows SBS to drop the entire season at once, but reviews have stated that it’s not a show that’s suited to binge watching.

In the United States, streaming platform Hulu released the first three episodes together, before adopting a traditional weekly release model. Several critics in the United States have praised this approach, with Uproxx’s Alan Sepinwall writing:

“The series… would be unbearable as a binge, which makes it a perfect fit for Hulu’s more traditional release strategy.”

This isn’t a surprise to people who are familiar with Atwood’s novel. Following environmental disasters, religious zealots take over the government and women’s rights are slowly taken away, only valued for their ability to conceive. The binge watch has become common practice in the era of Netflix, but it isn’t the best way to watch every show.

A traditional weekly release strategy appears to be the best option for The Handmaid’s Tale, due to its difficult subject matter. Fast-tracking the show weekly is a better option for Australian viewers because they won’t have to wait for the show, and they will be able to watch it in the manner that was originally intended.

Australians have become used to waiting for television shows, but since online video sharing became available, they haven’t had to. This led to free to air channels fast-tracking shows from the United States, and Foxtel doing the same for several shows, including their deal with HBO to air their shows within 24 hours to reduce online piracy.

In 2014, SBS began fast-tracking the science-fiction thriller Orphan Black, premiering episodes on SBS OnDemand within hours of the U.S., as well as broadcasting them the following Tuesday. This, along with last week’s announcement, demonstrates that SBS has the capability to fast-track The Handmaid’s Tale. Their decision to wait until July has annoyed television fans who hoped the show would land on a streaming service such as Stan, which is currently fast-tracking Better Call Saul, Angie Tribeca, iZombie and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Since the arrival of subscription streaming services, Australian broadcasters have been fast-tracking fewer shows. Ten, which used to fast-track Showtime’s Homeland, has recently been unwilling to air popular imports outside the official ratings season. Last year, the return of The X-Files was delayed until the beginning of official ratings, and despite the show’s popularity, the ratings weren’t good. This year, they used the same strategy for 24: Legacy, which rated so poorly it was moved to a later timeslot.

Despite measures enacted by the federal government including blocking access to popular file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, tech-savvy television fans can still access their favourite shows online using Virtual Private Networks (VPN). In the case of The Handmaid’s Tale, Australian viewers can use VPNs to either access The Pirate Bay or obtain a subscription to US-based streaming service Hulu. While SBS doesn’t have an audience as large as the commercial free to air networks, the acquisition of The Handmaid’s Tale was a smart strategy to attract viewers.

Based on the experiences of Ten however, it is likely that SBS will lose viewers who won’t want to wait another two months.

Once again, Australian viewers must wait for a critically-acclaimed show, even though Foxtel and streaming subscription services are fast-tracking popular shows for Australian viewers, and SBS has proven itself to be capable of fast tracking with Orphan Black. Tech-savvy television fans can find their way around firewalls and geo-blocking, and this delay could lose SBS the viewers it had hoped to gain by broadcasting The Handmaid’s Tale.