Netflix's New "Play Something" Feature is Pathetic
Even though unintentional, it's also the boldest admission of inadequacy ever voiced online
After spending years in Rumorville and about 9 months or so in limited testing, a Netflix function that promises to “do all the work for you” is available to subscribers worldwide (those that use the Smart TV version of the service’s app for now). It’s the much-discussed “random pick” option that Netflix calls “Play Something”: when selected from the navigation sidebar to the left or the active profile menu this function will just pick a film or a TV show from Netflix’s vast library and start playing it, in theory “helping” consumers kick back and watch something when they are not in the mood for choosing content to their liking.
The “Play Something” function is not completely random, strictly speaking, as its algorithm takes into account consumers’ viewing history when making a choice out of all those movies or shows. But since it might not succeed in picking out something viewers would like to watch — if it were that easy there’d be no need for a “Play Something” feature to begin with, would it? — an extension of that function called “Play Something Else” will try to make a better guess the second time around. According to Netflix, “Play Something Else” will pick a brand new series or film, a series or film you’re already watching (gee thanks), a series or film that’s already on your list (this is AI for you) or an unfinished series or film you may want to revisit (seriously).
So let’s get that out of the way: “Play Something Else” is clearly laughable, but “Play Something” is pathetic to begin with. For a number of different reasons.
For starters, it’s hard not to think that “Play Something” is followed by “Comma Anything”, as if what you’ll spend the next couple of hours watching does not matter at all. “Play something, anything” is what people say when they actually don’t care what they’re going to watch. I can’t speak for anyone else but, personally, I only have a couple of hours a day to spend in front of a TV. I can’t afford to just watch whatever it is that a streaming service decides to serve me and, frankly, I detest the very idea of it. I do not need something to just pass the time, I want to sit down and watch something that I really want to watch. Something that I have a genuine interest in.
This is probably what all people should be doing, of course, even if they have much more time available for entertainment than I do. The notion of “here, watch something to pass the time” in 2021, when consumers have so many options for home entertainment, can only be described as insulting. It’s also in line with the Netflix mentality of “feed them anything, even trash, they’ll watch it anyway as long as it’s included in their subscription”. Now that I do not really have to describe how I feel about.
Then it’s the self-serving nature of “Play Something” that bugs me since I know how Netflix thinks. I was fully expecting the company’s algorithm to promote said company’s own productions even before testing it out and, sure enough, when “Play Something Else” is selected, around half of the suggestions made by this function are Netflix Originals. It’s not all of them, of course — even Netflix would not dare be so shameless — but still: “Play Something Else” is also, very conveniently, a marketing tool. On a service that I already pay for. Sweet.
But the elephant in the room, the real reason why Netflix deemed it necessary to implement “Play Something”, is the infamous “remote control fatigue”. This — as anyone who’s been a Netflix subscriber for more than a year can attest — really is a major problem, one the company openly admits that “Play Something” strives to solve: the annoying grind of scrolling through endless rows of thumbnails, looking for something interesting to watch (or something two people agree it’s interesting to watch… let alone more).
The operative word in the above sentence is “interesting” — and that is where the actual problem lies. We are spending so much time looking for something to watch on Netflix - remote control slackly in hand, bored of the process - not because we are spoilt for choice, but because there are precious few things that are good enough to watch at any time, no matter the mood.
Netflix’s library always had a quality, not a quantity, problem and that is what “remote control fatigue” is about. By adding a “Play Something” function Netflix is not solving the quality problem. It’s just trying to avoid it by serving more of the same mediocre stuff that led to “remote control fatigue” in the first place. If nothing else, it’s an admission of the company’s failure to consistently deliver enough compelling content to its customers. Simple as that.
It’s no coincidence that the cringe-worthy promo video of “Play Something” Netflix published yesterday captures that failure perfectly: concluding with the motto “Sometimes the best choice is not to choose”, it portrays a company now at odds with itself. After investing billions of dollars over the years so that its service can always offer everyone “plenty of choice on what to watch”, is Netflix now telling us that we are supposed to often give up choosing content to our liking just because there’s not enough good stuff to choose from?
Thank you but no, thank you, Netflix. We all gave you enough time, more than 5 years by now, to come up with quality content… and what we now get for that patience (and around $700 of subscription money) is a “shuffle” button and a self-serving algorithm? No. Some of us would rather not settle for what “Play Something” picks for us and find something we actually want to watch instead. Just somewhere else. You’re not the only game in town anymore, your cracks are showing and it’s about time someone told you so.