May 5, 2021

Hurry Up and Play Something!

Netflix recently launched Play Something, a feature that automatically starts a show on launch versus going directly to the scrolling menu. According to Netflix, users spend an inordinate amount of time and energy finding something to watch. The new feature, says Netflix, is designed to ease that burden.

The premise assumes that viewers are in fact fatigued by having to scroll to find something to watch. Is this premise correct? How much time do streamers spend surfing around for something to watch? Is it, in fact, too much?

A Brief History of Netflix & Auto-Play
This is not the first time Netflix ventured into this territory. Until early last year, Netflix automatically displayed the trailer for every video tile a viewer paused on during search. To add insult to injury, users had no way to disable the feature. No surprise, this didn’t land well with viewers, despite Netflix’s claim that many enjoyed no-choice auto-play. (As one reporter wryly noted, “If they do, I’ve never met any of them.”)

Sadly, this went on for years before Netflix offered consumers a choice in the matter.

“We’ve heard the feedback loud and clear,” said Netflix, relenting to viewer demands. The default setting remained autoplay, of course, but at least users had the option to dig around the Netflix website, find the relevant screen, and manually reset it.

In January 2021, Netflix announced plans to release a new “shuffle play” feature. The feature went global in late April.

How It Works
As with most recommendation engines, based on your viewing habits, Play Something algorithms assign specific titles to your autoplay carousel, which begin playing full-screen when users first hit their home pages or finish a title. As well, a small embedded text describes the title and provides “buttons” for skipping forward or backward to allow movement between titles.

According to Cameron Johnson, Netflix’s director of product innovation, “When finding your next story, let the story find you. Whether you’re in the mood for a new or familiar favorite, just Play Something and let Netflix handle the rest.”

Why Now?
Having the ability to disable a default setting is very different from being able to decide upfront whether you want to use a feature. Vendors know this, but it’s not until push comes to shove (be it consumers or competitors doing the shoving) that things truly begin to change.

This is where Netflix now finds itself in the U.S. and Canada, with anemic subscription growth and viewing share diminishing as the list of major competitors expands.

When any service provider reaches its saturation point in any given market, resources must shift from subscriber growth to retention and differentiation, a key part of which is service optimization. User-friendliness thus becomes front and center. Providing a carousel of recommended trailers when searching for interesting content is a step in that direction, but not without providing subscribers an upfront opportunity to opt out or in.

Discovery Fatigue
But there is a second set of reasons that launching Play Something at this time is prudent: a growing swath of SVOD viewers find discovery to be cumbersome.

As noted below, 36% of adult SVOD users spend on average more than five minutes searching for content each time they watch a subscription streaming service, with 14% spending more than 10 minutes.

Generally, 34% of adult SVOD users say the amount of time spent searching for a watchable video is “about right,” while 45% believe discovery time to be “a bit too long” and 21% “far too long.” As the table below demonstrates, the more time spent in discovery the more likely viewers are to consider it excessive. The relationship is linear.

Only 9% of adult viewers consider SVOD discovery time of five minutes or less to be excessive, compared with 62% of those spending 6-10 minutes and 73% of those investing more than 10 minutes. As to whether this amount of time is “far too long,” it also increases with discovery time, from 1% to 14% to 33% among the categories, respectively.
It would appear, then, that Netflix’s desire to ease the discovery burden is right on time and in tune with consumer needs. Whether Play Something aids in this mission remains to be seen.

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Michael Greeson co-founded TDG in 2004 and serves as President and Director of Research. As a 20-year veteran of the connected consumer and broadband media spaces, he has designed and fielded more than 50 quantitative consumer research projects and authored/co-authored more than 75 reports on multi-screen/multi-platform video and the connected consumer.

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