The Paradox of Streaming Services

I tried booting up some of the streaming services I subscribe to so I could watch something that doesn't make me want to kill myself. As usual, they failed so rather than suck-starting a shotgun, here's a complaint in text form.

The Paradox of Streaming Services
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash

Streaming services can go fuck themselves. Youtube has decided to show ads, so I'm staying away from there until my adblocker works again. Instead, I tried booting up some of the streaming services I subscribe to so I could watch something that doesn't make me want to kill myself. As usual, they failed so rather than suck-starting a shotgun, here's a complaint in text form.

I am unable to grasp why streaming services make it so hard to find something to watch. The mechanisms are easily understood, and it should be a cheap way for streaming services to distinguish themselves.

At the core of the problem is the paradox of choice: the more choice you have, the harder it is to make a decision. The reason is that when making a choice between two pieces of content, you are rejecting one. There's very little chance, you picked a bad option. When picking one out of 10 or 100 or 1000, you reject 9, 99, or 999 options. How can you be sure the one you picked is better than the 999 others?

There are fundamentally two types of persons when it comes to choices: the maximizer and the satisfizer. The maximizer will always aim for getting the best option where the satisfizer is happy with just one that is good enough. While the maximizer may be objectively finding better options, satisfizers are generally happier with their choices. The reason is that the satisfizer will figuratively draw a red line and essentially pick the first option that passes it, whereas the maximizer will consider all options to pick the best. As such, the maximizer will see many more options, and while their picked option may be the overall best, it will not win on all parameters: other options may be funnier, have better stories, prettier cast or otherwise surpass the overall best option. The chosen option will therefore be weighed against all those better options (for one parameter), and the overall enjoyment go down.

Streaming services found one layout in the 90s or early 00s and have stuck with it ever since: here's a matrix of covers, grouped by meaningless categories, and prestige projects at the top. This is bad for both the satisifzer and maximizer: it is an overwhelming avalanche of choice that provides the maximizer with so many options they can use to fuel regret for the choice they finally make (if they make one) and makes it nearly impossible for the satisfizer to find something that works.

I am normally a satisfizer. When I travel, I pick the first hotel that is in easy travel distance to the show I am going to see and not retardedly expensive. When I eat out, I prefer the surprise menu and the waiting staff's suggestion of wine (it's even easier after I started preferring eating meat-less as that cuts down the choice by a factor of 3-4 in most places). When I go to my regular pub, the staff knows what I normally order and ask if I want that. I'm sure I could get better and cheaper goods, but I get things I'm happy with at a price I can accept to pay.

When I log on to a streaming service, that's nearly impossible. I have three streaming services: Disney+, Apple TV+, and Amazon Prime. The last two I have because I get Apple TV+ for free with my Apple Music subscription as a student and Amazon Prime heavily discounted with my AmEx, otherwise I'd just have one.

Every time I log in to Disney+ and Amazon Prime, I have to tell them that I'm watching. It's always me watching because it's my account. It's perfectly fine others share their accounts with foreigners, friends, or family. Why add needless friction every time? Sure, it's just one (closer to 5) click, but it could be zero.

Then there's the fact that none of the services seem to recall what I have watched. Things I watched 3 months ago seem to just go back in rotation and often there's a category for watching stuff again. Why don't services keep track of that? That'd be a reason to have an uninterrupted subscription. If you forget my watch history after a month anyway, shy shouldn't I just cancel my subscription and resubscribe next time I wish to thru the pilgrimage of picking something to watch? Remove everything I've already watched and delegate it to a history I can bring up at the push of a single button. Don't add more choice I'll never pick.

Of course, there's also the list of things I've partially watched; either movies I've watched part of or series I've started. That's in principle very useful. Except it also contains movies I've watched but skipped the credits of, or movies/series I've started and discarded because they were garbage. Allow me to tell you when you're wrong and I've already completed a movies (even though there's 5 glorious minutes of scrolling text left) and that your movie/series sucks. Feed that back into your recommendation algorithm.

Then there's the prestige shows. Stop trying to shove your penis of prestige down my throat. Allow me to say I never want to see Simpsons recommendations because that show was never funny. Allow me to say I'll never watch Marvel movies or series because I'm not 12. I have no interest in Car Show, I'll never watch Ted Sportsball and I find that Asimov show pretentious and way too long, no matter how much money you put into them. Remember that and put it into your big data gaping anus.

Then use your knowledge of what I have watched and what I haven't together with knowledge of what other people like to make meaningful recommendations. FFS, Netflix has data of what everybody is watching, Disney+ has one of the largest libraries (and likely a basement with child slaves oompa loompas who can do the manual labor), Amazon has the biggest data center in the world, a sweatshop of minimum salary wagies, and fucking IMDB, and Apple has… Phil Schiller I guess. Provide recommendations for me rather than for your bottom line. Because your bottom line is in danger if I (and everybody else) leave.

Don't spam random generic categories. I should be relatively easy to group my watching history into segments. When I am stepping on my bike, I want a musical or a concert movie. When I'm hungover I want something I can keep watching all day. Sometimes, I just want something amusing/informative to watch while eating dinner, and sometimes I want something funny/interesting/informative to waste away 2-3 ppm of my life). Make it easy to dismiss a category either for now or permanently, and remove everything in that cluster. Clustering is such a simple part of data analysis even my psychology class included it, so I'm sure a streaming service should be able to figure it out eventually, a million monkeys with a million typewriters and all.

BMI is a good measurements to speak about obesity in populations, but often fail at the individual level. My electricity company keeps insisting on over-estimating my power consumption in the winter and under-estimating it in the summer, even though it should be trivial to just predict: probably the same as last month (and the 20 months before that). In Bill Gates' "The Road Ahead," about the internet, he spoke about the production of pants. Originally each pair of pants was hand-made to fit the individual, expensive and had to last forever. Then mass-production made pants cheap but at the cost of being generic and not really fitting most. Gates' saw the internet at the next step, mass-customization, where each pair of pants is made to order, at a cost at or similar to mass-production, but fitted to the individual. Using that analogy, theatre could be viewed as the hand-made pants of the stone age, cable TV as the mass-produced Levi's, but then why isn't streaming mass-customization? Why doesn't streaming adapt to individual choice?

Sure, my taste in TV may not be mainstream (at the sweet-spot intersection of gay guy, teenage girl, and sci-fi nerd), but I have no illusion that I am unique. I also have no illusion that everybody else are just the same even though they are different from I. Streaming services should not deal with massive one-size-fits-nobody-models, but instead treat individuals as such.

It's not even that complex. Cluster the content – clusters are allowed to overlap and should have distances to one another. Realize that person profiles are useless, and instead assume that people are the union of a handful or so of clusters. Don't ask who is watching, ask what the viewer is interested in. If an account is used by more than one person this magically still works! Propose a couple of categories as well as continuing what was last watched, never more than 5 choices, and one choice should always be "something else." Ask one or two questions, then provide a few options; not based on "we just invested billions in this shitty space-laser movie for kids" but on your clusters of content, your knowledge of my watch history, and my answers to what I want now. Don't use a LLM for LLMs are for children that cannot do computer science, this is simple data science.

This will work for the maximizer and satisifzer: As an maximizer, I can pick the best content out of the four selections and only have to reject less than a handful that might be funnier. As a satisfizer, I get suggestions based on my red line and can pick any. If I don't want any, ask me why: not matching my mood right now, never interested in this, let me pick another category, or provide more options. Probably allow me to perform an advanced search at the first and last step, but let's be honest, nobody will ever use that.

Heck, this will work well for streaming services, too. They are struggling with people subscribing for a few months and then leaving. If they could consistently provide something interesting to watch, people would be less likely to unsubscribe, and if they could remember choices and profiles and get better the longer you were subscribed, people would have a genuine, albeit non-economic, cost of unsubscribing.

The wall of covers metaphor worked when libraries were small. When I subscribed to Disney+, their library was relatively small. I could go thru and see all the golden age Disney cartoons (because I'm 12) or all 17 movies provided by Amazon when I had a free trial long ago. Today, I more often than not open up the app, scroll for 5 minutes and just give up. That is, if I even bother to open the apps because I know that's what will inevitably happen. And why on Earth would I pay for that experience?