I’ve been watching series and movies since the 90s. First it rummaged through my sister’s old VHS tapes Doctor Who and X files, then there was collecting and watching entire anime series from places like Sam Goody and Suncoast. In the early 2000s, companies started releasing series by season rather than episode (at really affordable prices), and that made binge-watching shows a lot easier. Just go to the library to get a season of The sopranos was a lot easier than asking to borrow someone’s VHS recordings. Now binge-watching a show is easier than ever, but the biggest complaint is that people have to binge for fear of spoilers and wish they could enjoy a show that’s being circulated episodically.
I don’t care. Spoilers are rarely a barrier to enjoyment for me, and I learned a long time ago how to watch a really good show to maximize episodic thrills. No, my problem with the current binge model is that it doesn’t account for split universes and all the weird observation commands that may be required. It also doesn’t account for older shows, which often aired in a different order than they were produced, leading to weird inconsistencies in the story as characters were introduced in shows long after they actually appeared. And it seems like it should be an easy problem to solve.
As Netflix, Disney+, Peacock, Paramount+ and whatever HBO Max and Discovery eventually wage war with each other to become the best streaming service in the US, they’re frantically focused on content. This is not how the streaming wars should be fought. The idea was that streaming would give us more choices, not just in content, but in how we watch that content. But instead of finding new ways to engage with the shows we want to watch, streaming services are focused on acquiring new franchises or pumping millions into their established franchises. Concern about the actual experience seems to have taken a seat in the third row of the car.
This has led to odd situations, like the lack of support for 4K and HDR in much of these streamers’ content, franchises migrating from platform to platform seemingly without fanfare, or HBO Max continuing to ship one of the buggiest apps. Churn, where people constantly subscribe to services and then delete them when they’ve seen the content they wanted to watch, seems to have become such an expected part of the business for streamers that little attention is paid to people actually to keep platforms longer than the duration of the shows they wanted to watch.
But there are so many helpful little tweaks that streaming services don’t want to use that I sometimes wonder if any of the people running these platforms actually use them. Which brings me back to how hard it is to consume older content. If you want to watch Star Trek: The Original Series You can either buy it from something like Apple TV or Amazon Prime, or stream it on Paramount+. Either way, you’re seeing in air date order as opposed to production order or chronological in-universe order.
watch something like that Buffy: The Vampire Slayer or CW’s The Lightning is even more difficult. These shows often feature major crossovers with their sibling shows, and unless you pull up a guide somewhere to find out the viewing order of these crossovers, you’ll find that you’re missing out on crucial parts of the characters’ storylines.
“[P]The art of promise that came with streaming was a “better-than-cable” experience that enabled personalization and curation that creates a closer connection,” Julia Alexander, Director of Strategy at Parrot Analytics and former edge reporter told me. “People watch TV series in different ways, chronologically, in order of release, or by topic — but the services don’t allow that personalization and it’s counterintuitive to what makes streaming so great.”
This type of personalization shouldn’t be a problem. This is a very solvable problem for streaming companies as all it takes is custom playlists – technology that has been around for a very long time!
“Creating a more personal, intimate viewing experience increases satisfaction and makes a platform’s inherent value clearer, which can help increase customer loyalty,” Alexander said. “With businesses struggling to keep customers’ attention month after month, personalized curation is a big step—and with so little effort.”
However, despite a relatively small boost, the streamers didn’t really make it. It feels very weird that you can’t choose to watch Star Trek: The Original Series in a fan-favorite order rather than airdate order, which foreshadows some of the series’ most macho and sexist episodes, rather than the more cerebral ones that have made the show so enduring. This order was chosen nearly 60 years ago by a group of executives who were scared of the sci-fi show and wanted to lure people in with alien ladies in bikinis and gods keen to engage in fistfights.
The Star Wars universe is another one that could benefit from playlists, allowing you to watch content in the order set in the universe, rather than the order it was filmed. you should watch solo before or after The Mandalorian? Where does Obi Wan Kenobi fall against The bad batch or rebels or the coming Ahsoka? Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of a Google search, Disney+ could help you figure that out? Franchises like the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe, the smaller Snyder-Verse, and even grey’s anatomy, and 9-1-1 would also benefit greatly from customizable playlists.
With some streamers like Paramount+ already having playlists designed to mimic linear channels, creating playlists that queue the shows in the order you prefer shouldn’t be difficult. But it would require streamers to stop trying to see how many prestige shows they can win from established franchises and start thinking about what’s made streaming so alluring: choice.