Streaming should be more like TV

I’ve been a ‘cord-cutter’ since 2005, when I went off to college and left behind my parents’ luxurious premium cable package. And since then, I’ve seen a bunch of streaming technologies come and go.

  • 2006: Watching World Cup games at my computer helpdesk job, via an unbearably laggy Sopcast stream
  • 2007: Watching movies and TV shows streaming directly off the Megaupload page; no need to download the file to my local drive!
  • 2010: Icefilms.info – Don’t remember too much about it, except that it needed a GreaseMonkey script of some kind to work. But once that was set up, it worked flawlessly.
  • 2011: Signing up for Netflix only for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, then promptly unsubscribing due to the DRM-related requirement to have Microsoft Silverlight installed

Of course, streaming became mainstream in the 2010s, so my ideological opposition to Silverlight became moot as networks became hostile to something as minor as taking a a screenshot. And if you want streaming apps to run on your mobile device, it needs have Widevine L1 DRM certification, or it’ll send you to the purgatory of 480p-land. But that’s a topic for another day. Here’s my beef with streaming today:

It is impossible to stumble upon something interesting by pure chance. I have to select what to watch every time, and my starting point is always 0:00

An overwhelming majority of TV shows fail to grab me in Season 1, Episode 1. The same goes for most movies. There is usually far too much build-up about the characters and their back stories, and it takes a long time to get to meaningful plot-driven dialogue.

Serendipity Now!

If there’s one thing I miss from the cable TV days, it’s serendipity. I could be channel-surfing on my couch at 1AM, semi-asleep, and suddenly come upon a TV show or movie say 15 minutes in, and be completely enraptured. By removing the cognitive load of having to actually select something from a bottomless list, and commit to watching it from beginning to end, I could just try to enjoy whatever I was looking at, right at that moment.

The best example of this would be in 2004, when I was doing exactly the above. I flipped over to BBC America and watched half an episode of Peep Show, a series that would end up becoming a genuinely important cultural touchstone for me. And this was a Season 1 episode too, where the mood was quite dark for a comedy. It loosened up a lot in future seasons, which attracted a much wider audience. But had I started off with Episode 1, minute 0 as I might have with a physical DVD, it wouldn’t have made the same impression.

Another example would be It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia in 2005. After coming across it halfway through “Charlie Wants An Abortion”, I watched all of the remainder of Season 1, back in the dark ages when episodes were shown a week apart, and you had to switch to that channel at the stated broadcast time. I’m pretty sure TiVO existed back then actually, but we didn’t have it at my house.

A classic scene from “Charlie wants an Abortion”

A Bonus: broadcasts of It’s Always Sunny were immediately followed by a second half-hour sitcom. During Season 1, it was a show called Starved, which was about a group for 3 guys dealing with eating disorders. One is overweight and binges frequently, the other is a cop that binges and purges on the job. The third guy I don’t remember, although he was the protagonist and most of the plotlines revolved around him. This was a dark comedy, which, similarly to IASIP, was something I just had not previously come across on basic cable. It never got extended beyond the six-episode mini-season, which is a shame.

Any Others?

Few and far in between. In 2016, there was a very short-lived reality TV show called Fit to Fat to Fit, where a fitness trainer has to gain and lose 30 pounds, then provide coaching to a similarly overweight civilian. It was fascinating to watch them genuinely struggle to pack on the pounds, then struggle again to lose it all. It really made them empathize more with their clients.

Would I have watched it if it came up on a Netflix/Prime carousel, with a 3-line description optimized for scannability and ‘engagement’? Hell no. I watched it because I was travelling for work, stuck in a hotel room, and just wanted to channel surf mindlessly. I can’t do that on streaming networks, because, as I said, I still have to pick something and start from minute zero.

The same is true for the legal drama “The Good Fight”. I discovered it in a hotel room, again. My preference for legal shows are ones where the plot focuses on the cases themselves, as opposed to the lawyers’ personal lives; the OG Law & Order is the high water mark of the genre for this reason (and the great writing!). The Good Fight is not like L&O and the cases can be downright silly sometimes; but watching it midway through an episode does a better job of connecting me to the characters and plotlines a lot faster than sitting through the tedious build-up.

The Giddy Up Network: A short-lived oasis in the desert

Sometime in 2013, I moved my digital collection of TV shows and movies into a media library software called XBMC, now known as Kodi. XBMC had plugins for things like Youtube and Dailymotion, but what really stood out was something called “TGUN.tv”. Installing it gave me access to a host of channels streaming episodes of a bunch of shows 24/7:

  • Frasier
  • Friends
  • Dharma & Greg
  • It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun
  • Law & Order: SVU
  • Scrubs
  • others I can’t remember

Because each show had it’s own channel streaming 24/7, I never needed to select an episode. Just click and I’d be transported into a random episode, at a random time stamp. It was glorious; I can’t really explain why, but just the simple act of not having to decide what episode to pick massively increased my enjoyment and appreciation for whatever episode I did stumble on to.

Unfortunately it only lasted a couple of years, as the TGUN.tv plugin became buggier over time, some streams stopped and started, and eventually it disappeared entirely. I miss that a lot. There still isn’t a feature in the regular XBMC to shuffle your library, or start an episode at a random timestamp. I’m not really holding out hope that streaming networks will ever get around to implementing such an edge-case feature. As more and more TV shows get phased out in favour of the network’s own content, I do know that I’d probably watch at least some of them if I was introduced to it in that serendipitous way. The dreadful pre-roll ads on Prime are not up to the task.