Who Loses Big in the Great Streaming Wars? The User - Rolling Stone
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Who Loses Big in the Great Streaming Wars? The User

In an ever-expanding world of TV services, it’s only getting harder to find what you want

streaming wars, hulu, disney+, amazon prime, hbo max

Photo Illustration: Getty Images/Tetra images RF(TV); (cracks) Vicente Méndez; (remote control) Jamroen Jaiman/Eye Em/Getty Images

With last week’s launch of the NBCUniversal-backed streaming service Peacock, the number of available streamers on the market right now is approximately a billion. (Note: This is only an estimate. The actual number may be higher.) As Peacock joins Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Disney+, CBS All Access, Apple TV+, YouTube, Acorn, Quibi, Tubi, Hoopla, Shudder, Crunchyroll, and so many more (none of those names are made up), the great dream of cord-cutting is long dead. You may be free of your cable bill, but you would have to recreate the cable bundle by subscribing to at least a half-dozen of these things to keep up with all the TV out there. And as shows and movies hop from one service to another, often with no apparent logic, even if you understand which corporations own what content, it can be a mental headache, on top of the financial one, to figure out where you can watch what you want.

All of this is annoying, though most of it can at least be understood in the spirit of business. If WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal can make more money using Friends and The Office to get people to subscribe to HBO Max and Peacock, respectively, than they would from licensing those shows to Netflix, that’s what they’re going to do. Corporations care about making money, not helping customers save it.

The part of the streaming shell game that I’ve never been able to fully understand — and that has somehow gotten worse with each passing year and each new service debut — is just how bad the user experience is on all of them. It’s been 13 years since Netflix began offering streaming content, with Hulu and others soon to follow, yet the user interfaces consistently seem designed to make finding what you want to see — whether continuing a binge or discovering something new — a Herculean effort. Spend enough time toggling between the services, and you’ll want to quote Hall of Fame baseball manager Casey Stengel trying to make sense of the historically inept 1962 Mets: Can’t anybody here play this game?

Not all bad interfaces are created equal, of course. Netflix has been at it the longest, and while there’s a lot that could be better about their site and apps, there are also basic things Netflix engineers understand about user behavior that many of their competitors still can’t grasp(*). Hulu has been around nearly as long, yet up until the latest update — which is for the moment only available to some of their subscribers — it seemed like each new tweak was done by someone actively trying to sabotage what, based on content alone, should easily be the best streaming-TV option out there. Amazon has both the best bonus feature of any streamer — X-Ray, where pausing a scene gives you the name of every actor and character in that scene, the name of any songs playing, and other details — and one of the hardest interfaces to navigate, befitting a service that’s an afterthought in a much larger business empire. As for the newcomers, you’d think they would have learned what works and what doesn’t after a decade-plus of streaming TV, yet that isn’t quite the case. The interfaces for the services that have debuted over the last eight months range from “mostly functional” (Disney+) to “why is any of this where it is?” (Peacock).

(*) Although by going first, Netflix also helped shape some of those behaviors, as well as our perception of what is and isn’t a good interface. 

Simply put, there are a lot of basic practices that all streamers should be following, and that most of them don’t seem to understand in the slightest. Here’s our four-point plan to optimize user experience.

1. Always make it easy to resume a binge.
The streamers have conditioned us to think of bingeing as their, and our, raison d’etre, and odds are you’re sitting down for the latest episode of your new favorite, or to start what you’ve already set aside to be your new-new favorite, having watched the finale of your old-new favorite the night before. So, it should be the height of simplicity to pick up where you left off, or dive straight into the next show, right?

Not so fast, smart guy.

Netflix has been consistently good at having a Continue Watching bar featured prominently on the home screen, even if you have to scroll down past a billboard for the algorithm’s shiny new offering to get there. The other big streamers have mostly followed suit with their own equivalents, though not always with success. Hulu’s previous update didn’t even put its Keep Watching bar on the landing page, requiring multiple clicks to get there; the new version (which I’m told will be available to all users by sometime next week) finally puts it on the main page, but only after scrolling down past several huge vertical billboards for shows the algorithm is excited about. Amazon’s Watch Next bar comes up right near the top, but it can offer a confusing mix of things you’re in the middle of watching, things you’ve added to your Watchlist, and things you’ve finished watching but whose closing credits you didn’t sit through every last second of.

As for your Queue/List/Watchlist/Whatever, that may be right below the Continue Watching bar, or you may have to hunt for it.

2. But don’t make it too hard to go back and re-watch when necessary.
Even when you get to the right episode of the right show, sometimes picking up exactly where you left off makes more sense in theory than in practice. Who among us hasn’t dozed off during a late-night binge, or gotten a bit ahead of the spouse/friend/relative we’re watching with, only to struggle to figure out how to return to an earlier point? Some services, like Prime Video, offer a simple option to restart episodes or movies from the beginning rather than resuming, while others, like Hulu and HBO Max, only present the resume option. (It also doesn’t help that most of these services have terrible fast-forward and rewind functions that offer little finesse for moving around if you just want to refresh your memory.)

3. Give the customer more control of the browsing process, and a layout that makes sense.
Admittedly, the streamers have all gotten better overall at allowing you to stick with what you’ve already chosen. It’s when you’re on the lookout for something else that the process turns into an existential crisis where confusion and choice paralysis rule. With the exception of Disney+, which has several clearly delineated brands and genres that are easy to explore(*), the streamers seem to go out of their way to encourage endless browsing, as if time spent on the service is valuable to them even if you never get around to actually watching anything. Browsing is difficult, direct searching is somehow worse, and the whole thing seems to have been made by one of those men Alfred tried to warn Bruce Wayne about, who just want to watch the world burn.

(*) And even they’re not perfect — all the Marvel movies are arrayed pretty randomly, which makes it more difficult to attempt to, say, rewatch the MCU in order. 

Each (dis)organization strategy is serving a different master, and that causes different problems. Netflix has sworn undying allegiance to its algorithm, believing the computer knows what you want to see better than you do. You can’t customize which genres or subgenres (“Witty Workplace Comedies,” et. al.) are displayed on the home screen, because the algorithm is doing the work for you. But the algorithm easily gets confused (my “Because you watched Star Trek” bar is full of foreign-language drama series, few of them with even a hint of science fiction), or takes the wrong lessons from what you’ve already watched — as in the case of a friend who can’t stop getting true crime recommendations because he enjoyed American Vandal, which existed to make fun of those kinds of shows. Netflix, like so many of the others, goes out of its way to make it impossible to find new movies or shows, since “new” is defined as “newly-added to this service.” So, actual fresh releases like Old Guard and EuroVision will be listed right alongside the 2010 box-office flop How Do You Know. Trying to skim by genre is useless, both because the algorithm picks what you see first, and because the same content keeps popping up from genre to genre. (As I write this, the original Alyssa Milano version of Charmed is listed as a TV Comedy, among other things.)

Amazon and Apple are both trying to function as your streaming portals, offering access not only to their own content but to everybody else’s. The problem is that it can be hard to tell what you’ve already paid for and what you’d need to pay one of these giant companies an additional few bucks to rent for the evening. There’s an option on Amazon, for instance, to only see results that are included with a Prime subscription, but it’s not the default, and it’s not always intuitive to switch to that, depending on which device you’re using.

HBO Max and Peacock, like Disney+ before them, are meant to show off the combined treasures of their respective media libraries, but they do it in a much clumsier fashion. HBO Max at least presents A-Z lists of titles overall (a rarity, though Peacock also does this, if you scroll down far enough) and within genres (which a few others, like Hulu, offer). But finding shows or movies often comes down to understanding the various pieces of the WarnerMedia empire that have joined forces under the service’s misleading title (no one at HBO has anything to do with Max, and you can’t watch any Cinemax shows there, to make it more confusing), and knowing what might be on the TCM tab versus the HBO tab. (Or, for that matter, finding those tabs in the first place.) Peacock is even more of a hodgepodge, and not just because they licensed several prominent pieces of non-NBC content like Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men from other companies. (Peacock also lacks, for the moment, any kind of queue or profiles, the latter of which even Prime Video finally added recently.)

Hulu, meanwhile, began life as a joint venture among multiple broadcast networks to provide a next-day streaming home for new episodes of shows like The Office, House, and Lost. Even though it’s primarily owned by Disney now — and treated as the adult alternative to Disney+ — that concept that it’s a showcase still seems embedded in the DNA. (When you pull down the Browse menu in the new design, the first option is Networks, before you get to TV Shows, Movies, Hulu Originals, etc.) Content-wise, this is great: Hulu has by far the deepest TV library (HBO Max is the only service that’s close), and, between its originals and all the FX shows that have a streaming home there, the strongest roster of current series. But having so much good stuff from so many places thrown together so haphazardly is an organizational quagmire. The new layout makes improvements around the edges, but shifting from horizontal tiles to vertical ones isn’t the feng shui masterstroke one might have hoped.

4. Make searches easy.
As bad as most of these sites are for browsing, they can be a nightmare when it comes to just searching. It is the year 2020. Google is more than two decades old. Advanced web searches have existed for at least a quarter century. Most of the streamers present themselves as tech companies first, entertainment companies second. So, they should all have the most cutting-edge search functions possible, right? Or at least something as good as IMDb (which Amazon even owns, and uses for the X-Ray feature)? Yet, instead, all of them seem to employ search engines that would have been archaic when Alta Vista launched in 1995. No ability to customize for, say, directors or writers, and some don’t even recognize actor names, just titles.

As a test, I typed “Tom Hanks” into the Amazon search field. Its suggested auto-complete was “Tom Hanks movies in Prime Video.” The top results included A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (which you have to rent separately), the original Swedish version of A Man Called Ove (apparently because Hanks is producing the American remake), and a documentary called Apollo 13 that is not the beloved Hanks/Ron Howard film, plus other films Hanks has nothing to do with like Miss Sloane. A Netflix search for Hanks at least starts off with the handful of his movies the service (which in general has an awful film library) offers, starting with The Money Pit, before quickly segueing into vehicles for Ben Affleck, Bill Murray, Jack Nicholson, and Tom Cruise(*). Not every site offers keyword searches, and good luck with the ones that do. A Netflix search for “baseball” resulted in a handful of baseball films and shows, but also ones about football, ice hockey, and luchadors, among others. (It also gives you the 2005 animated comedy Chicken Little, though several characters play baseball in that movie before the aliens show up.)

(*) At least Max and Hulu produced more Hanks-specific results, though even the former spit out a few nebulous ones, like the HBO movie Game Change, which came from his production company.

None of this functionality should be this complicated and counterintuitive, yet so much of it is. Why in the world does Prime Video still separate shows by season, so that you have to add them one at a time to your Watchlist? Why does Hulu keep recommending things I’ve already finished, and not in some kind of “revisit an old favorite” context? Why does Peacock’s “Family Movie Night” tab include the profane Chevy Chase comedy Fletch?

We’re at the point where there are way more streaming services than people are willing to pay for. Netflix still has plenty of brand loyalty, Prime Video comes bundled in with free shipping, and all parents may be legally mandated to keep Disney+ until their kids are at least tweens. But where, once upon a time, it looked like the victors of the great streaming wars would be the services that had the best originals, or perhaps the biggest libraries of old movies and shows, now the big winner might be whoever devises a way to keep viewers from wanting to hurl a remote at the screen the next time they try to pick out that night’s watch.

 

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