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It’s the streaming era, but channel surfing and appointment TV are back

Netflix introduces Play Something, a streaming version of one of the oldest activities in TV history: channel surfing

So. Many. Choices.Dmitri Maruta/M-Production - stock.adobe.com

Like those days of spending 90 minutes in Blockbuster Video trying to select a 90-minute movie to watch, or like those evenings you shop for an hour at the supermarket getting hangrier and more predatory trying to choose a meal, or like the hours you sit at your computer with the entire consumer universe at your fingertips but can’t seem to pick out a gift, or like those times you need a concise lead sentence to your article but can’t pick just one analogy, TV decision fatigue is a thing.

That’s why Netflix is launching a new interface option called Play Something, a streaming version of what is basically one of the oldest activities in TV history: Channel Surfing.


In his story on the feature at Vulture, Josef Adalian describes Play Something as an effort by the super-service to help those who have Peak TV anxiety and can’t seem to decide what to watch. The screen will automatically start a show or movie that the company’s algorithm thinks you’ll like, and you can stick with that or click along to the next already-streaming suggestion. You can also click backward, if you want to return to a previous suggestion. With the Play Something option, you’ll be given the chance to lose them old what-to-choose blues. You can just sit back, as in days of yore, and poke around among the somewhat random options.

This fascinates me. It’s part of a larger correction regarding this era of TV, which is defined by a streaming revolution that has made everything available at all times. We find ourselves in that place that futurists predicted, where we can get whatever we want to watch whenever we want it, we can consume it wherever we want to, and we can basically view as much as we want. We simply make up our minds and binge away.


And yet, and yet, we’re not entirely ready to let go of all the trappings of the past. Along with a return to channel surfing, the streaming world is seeing a return to weekly release schedules. Netflix turned the binge model into something of a craze in 2013 with “House of Cards,” releasing full seasons of new shows all at once. Soon all the streamers were doing it, giving their subscribers the keys to the candy store. Viewers began racing through new shows, the TV version of a sugar rush, despite the resulting inability to share that show with others who might be on different binge schedules, the old “water cooler” phenomenon.

But now, a number of the streamers, many of which came after Netflix, have pulled back from the binge approach. Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, and HBO Max are using hybrid release schedules, so that they drop full seasons for some shows, and only an episode or two at a time for others. Certainly there is some corporate motivation behind the decision to go hybrid, since a show with a binge release doesn’t stay in the media and social-media spotlights very long. The buzz around a binge show doesn’t grow once the full season drops; it gets buried by the next week’s releases. Look at how Disney+ worked “The Mandalorian” with its gradual release, allowing Baby Yoda to remain in the public eye long enough to become a meme. Also, a streaming company might be able to hold on to a paying subscriber for longer, if that viewer is there for a show that’s on a slow schedule.


I don’t think channel surfing and weekly episode releases are coming back simply to suit the suits, though. There is something in human nature that doesn’t always want to be in charge. We can’t always get what we want, and sometimes we like it that way.

Rather than coming up with a TV selection and going to it, viewers do indeed sometimes simply want to Play Something, anything, to surf the waves and catch new or different kinds of series or movies from what they usually watch. There are those moments when you’re just in the mood for serendipity — a passive position, perhaps, but so what? Most often, I carefully select my night’s programming, but there are certainly times when I want to just let it happen to me.

Likewise, viewers do on occasion want to be on the same page with others when it comes to an episodic show, when they want to be granted only an episode per week so they can talk about it with their friends. They want to be paced, just as a dog or a child might on some level want to be led by their owner or parent. Bingeing can be fun, but it’s a somewhat lonely activity for those who generate toward community.

So once again it seems that the adages are true, that the more things change, the more they stay the same, or that one step forward leads to two steps backward, or that the more things change the more they stay the same. You decide.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.