How do people watch their favorite TV shows? Using a cable provider? Bought season by season direct on demand? Switching on whichever streaming service has it at the moment? Well, on TikTok, one of the most popular ways to consume media right now is watching episodes broken up into dozens of three-minute snippets. And the format is not just bringing these series back into the zeitgeist — it’s also helping streamers get around the promotion ban during the ongoing writers and actors strikes.
The best way to understand TikTok Parts, as the trend is known, is to take its name at face value: Accounts on the social media app take full-length episodes of television shows or films and split them into parts around two to three minutes. They’re usually captioned with the show’s title or perhaps hashtagged with an actor’s name, but the one thing most have in common is a tag delineating what part they are in a sequence. (“Part 22” or “Part 89,” for example). And for the average TikTok user, while they might open the app with the intention of scrolling, a stray part of an episode on a for-you-page can spark an hourslong binge of a show over dozens of TikToks.
Before this summer, the ABC comedy Ugly Betty was a perfect example of early 2000s television, a popular show filled with a now-in-their-primes cast — but without any of the online engagement of older series like The Office, 30 Rock, or Gilmore Girls. But when Netflix added it on Aug. 1, it took less than two weeks for Ugly Betty to experience a renaissance online. Google Trends shows interest in the series increased by 500 percent, and hashtags related to Ugly Betty have over 5.5 million views on TikTok, with the top 15 most popular edits all made after Aug. 1.
Ugly Betty isn’t the only show getting this treatment. There are hundreds of TikTok Parts of Grey’s Anatomy, Suits, South Park, 9-1-1, and even the children’s show Bluey. The accounts that post these have hundreds of thousands of followers, with videos reaching anywhere from 15,000 to 4 million views. On its own, Ugly Betty’s rise in popularity would probably have happened eventually, as a show’s addition to a prime billing spot on Netflix can help bring about a new afterlife, as Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall recently reported. But with TikTok accounts spitting random clips of shows directly to for-you-pages, TikTok parts aren’t distracting people who are scrolling — they’re genuinely influencing what TikTok users are watching.
In fact, series split into parts on TikTok can receive such a steady bump in viewership that streaming brands have attempted to adopt the model for their own social media strategies. Hulu, Peacock, Max, Netflix, and Starz have all posted clips from their most popular series in parts on TikTok. Following the strikes from the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild — which prevent actors and writers from promoting their new projects — TikTok accounts from streamers have seen a major increase in clips posting. On Sept. 4, Netflix posted the entire first episode of its series Top Boy in parts on TikTok, one after the other, a major departure from its usual schedule of random clips from different shows.
There’s a clear marketing appeal to this type of formatting. Posting clips just under three minutes usually allows accounts to escape copyright laws under the Fair Use Doctrine, as posting full episodes without a break would incur takedowns on platforms like Twitter or YouTube, communications professor Lindsay Hahn tells Rolling Stone. And while this wouldn’t apply to streamers who own their content, a vacuum of press during the ongoing strikes has meant streamers have become desperate to promote their original programming — so much so that they might be more lenient about letting TikTok parts of their current projects stay online.
“Parts could be an extremely useful method for the promotion of TV shows and movies, especially if they are driving more audiences to view the original content,” Hahn says. “In this case, parts would not only not be harming the market value of copyrighted material, but they’d be increasing it, which might make copyright owners less likely to crack down on users’ reproduction of their content, so long as the reproduced content still adheres to the other rules in the Fair Use Doctrine.”
But there’s also a psychological component, one that keeps people from simply closing their apps and logging onto their streaming accounts. According to media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, watching shows or films in parts acts like a response to a person’s neural reward system and can require cognitive effort to stop. Simply put, it’s easier to keep watching than it is to stop, note which episode the clip is from, close the app, log in on your browser, find the episode and then watch.
“Your brain is being rewarded by this continual watch and reward and, you know, finding out what’s going on. So it’s perfectly happy to just go along and watch another watch another one,” Rutledge tells Rolling Stone. “And most of these clips are sort of pivotal moments, or particularly meaningful. So when you see one, if you’ve seen the show before, your brain automatically contextualizes it and then there’s nostalgia.”
Rutledge adds that the reward system can work even stronger when people are faced with clips they’ve never seen before. It’s why the Ugly Betty renaissance captured both beloved viewers and new TikTok users who couldn’t read when the show premiered. It’s why users can run into a TikTok clip of Grey’s Anatomy and start rewatching it for the fifth time. It’s why there are people making thirst edits of the Suits cast 12 years after the show ended. And while the basic idea of watching a show in three-minute intervals might seem like the perfect fodder for dunks on the average zoomer’s attention span, Rutledge believes TikTok Parts is just another example of how media evolves with newer generations.
“People make assumptions that just because we’ve always watched movies this way, that’s the way they should be watched. And I think that you have to expect people to do interesting things when they have the ability to do that,” Rutledge says. “I don’t see this as a lack of attention. I see this as people facing a buffet of choice and personalizing their experience.”