Netflix's "Play Something" Button Is No Substitute for Channel Surfing

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Netflix's "Play Something" Button Is No Substitute for Channel Surfing

The rise of streaming services and the death of cable is, all things considered, happening pretty fast. Sure, we had all been complaining about astronomically rising cable package prices for awhile, and why we had to pay for 80 channels we don’t watch just to get 5 that we do. But once Netflix and services like Sling TV made “a la carte” available, the shift to cord cutting hit like an avalanche.

But cord cutting is really a misnomer. It’s not that consumers are cutting cable in favor of reading a book (I mean, God forbid). It’s just changing the cable cord to the internet service provider cord. At first, getting rid of a $115/mo cable bill for $15 (less at the time) of Netflix a month was a massive change. But then the rise of Peak TV, and prestige TV, meant that to find lots of great shows—or to continue watching old favorites—you needed a little Hulu here, a CBS All Access there, an HBO or Starz for a season, as well as the ESPN package and … sure, might as well do the Disney+ bundle while you’re at it. That adds up to quite a bit of cash. It’s still not really a la carte, either—you’re paying for a library of content you may never look at because of a few that you do—it’s just packaged differently.

The rise of streaming as a substitute for cable has made me oddly nostalgic for things I decried so vehemently in the past: a weekly release schedule, more formal TV premiere seasons, having all of your channels in one place for one price, and lately, channel surfing. The latter of these didn’t really occur to me until I saw Netflix’s “play something” button pop up, a shuffle feature that will use the service’s algorithm to just … play something. The wording here is, I think, important. “Play something” is one step away from “play anything,” which is one step away from “noise plz.”

Of course, broadcast networks and cable TV have been quietly providing this service for decades in the form of background TV. It’s easy to flip on a live channel and let it play, literally come what may, and not feel compelled to really pay attention because you are starting from the beginning—which somehow feels more serious. In my own TV watching past, I have come to love series I first turned on as noise, found comfort in jumping halfway into any Law & Order episode (especially during a marathon), and believe there is something particularly satisfying about flipping between two in-progress movies on cable when one goes to a commercial break.

(*I do not miss commercial breaks.)

This way of consuming entertainment that many people worked really hard on feels, when viewed in this light, glibly disrespectful. But frankly, a lot of the TV shows and movies that serve as background noise don’t really deserve to be taken super seriously. The point is that, regardless of quality, they serve an important purpose. Sometimes, when my brain is tired and I just want something on while I’m doing a mundane task or am eating a quick meal, I really don’t want to sit down and start a show or a movie from the beginning, or even an episode. I just want to flip around on the cable dial and catch something already in progress that’s familiar or mild enough to only warrant half-attention.

The other side of that, of course, is sampling that leads to something demanding your full attention. Unexpectedly riveted by a random moment in a show or movie, I’ll watch it all the way through, filling in the blanks of what I missed (a narrative mystery which can, bizarrely, sometimes boost my enjoyment of the thing). Though a dedicated schedule page for most cable services has decreased the frequency of this particular pastime, if you want you can still just literally click the remote up and down the channels and see if anything makes you pause. It’s not as daunting as starting the first episode of the first season of a major show, or something critically acclaimed or popular where you feel compelled to constantly judge it. It’s simply “does this catch my attention?” and if so perhaps discovering, “this is pretty good; I’ll keep watching.”

You can approximate this effect with most streaming services, by leaving several different episodes or movies hanging and coming back to them later. But ultimately it’s not the same; your list is still curated, these are shows that you sought out or the algorithm pushed upon you. Until Netflix’s “play something” option just drops you in the middle of a movie or TV show without any context, it lacks the thrill (or often disappointment!) of randomness that channel surfing has long provided. However … Netflix, savvy as they are, have themselves realized this and are actually testing a curated, scheduled linear channel in France. “Maybe you’re not in the mood to decide, or you’re new and finding your way around, or you just want to be surprised by something new and different,” said Netflix. Exactement.

The primary boon of streaming is that you can watch everything on demand. You don’t have to catch a show at a certain time on a certain night, or remember to record something (and wait for it to air); you can watch an entire series at your own pace, and the library of content (from classics to new releases) is nigh infinite. Everything is at your disposal! It should be wonderful. It sometimes is. But other times it’s nice to not be in total control, to see a sea of content and—instead of diving in to a specific point—just float languidly in the surf.

Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.