Video Discovery Still Sucks

Our favorite cliche is inching closer to reality: we can almost watch whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want.

Over the last several years we’ve witnessed the inflating bubble of on-demand access to just about everything (including on-demand haircuts). Entertainment has always been on the edge of this macro trend, first with the VCR, then the DVR and cable VOD, and now Streaming. The appification of streaming TV is in full-force, from SVOD services like Netflix and Amazon, to single-brand subscriptions like HBO Now and CBS All-Access, to TV Everywhere authenticated apps like Comedy Central and Watch ESPN. Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile and connected-TV’s, we’ve got the WHEREVER and WHENEVER covered well, and we’re making steady progress on the WHATEVER (slowed down by long-term licensing agreements).

It used to be that finding something to watch wasn’t hard, because there was very little choice. It was whatever happened to be on linear TV in the moment. Our standards for quality were much lower as a result. Now it’s hard to find something to watch, because there is so much choice and our quality standards are much higher. The ugly truth is that despite AI-driven recommendations, the content discovery experiences in video apps, including YouTube, have not evolved nor improved at the same pace as the increasing availability of on-demand video.

And so the state of video discovery kinda sucks today.

Despite the enormous conveniences of on-demand search and playback, I believe SVOD services neglected an important aspect of the linear TV experience: the serendipity of discovery. Serendipity is like magic: it happens to you, not by you. No effort is required. Life bombards us with a million decisions throughout the day, our entertainment should be an escape from all that work. Remember how we used to turn on the tube simply to see what’s on and flip through TV channels? That impulse to see what’s on is driven by the same impulse that has us pulling out our phones to check Facebook and Instagram throughout the day. It’s the unpredictability of a “variable reward” that creates these urges. We don’t know what we’ll get, but it might be awesome! Or it might be trash. And we keep on rolling the dice. Ironically, it’s the lack of user control in linear TV that gamified TV viewing before “gamified” was even a word.

“Our brains are wired to search endlessly for the next reward, never satisfied. Our dopamine system works not to provide us with rewards for our efforts, but to keep us searching by inducing a semi-stressful response we call desire,” writes Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (a great read for all Product Managers).

Watching TV used to be easy and the variable reward, or potential for unexpected delight, drew us in ever deeper. Five hours per day, in fact.

Now, finding the perfect next show to follow is hard work. As control shifts to the user, so does the burden of choice. And we lose any sense of mystery. When you go to an SVOD service, there is little unpredictably or variable reward. The vast content selection you get today is what you got yesterday and most likely the week before. The catalogs don’t noticeably change day-to-day or even week-to-week. At least with transactional VOD, like iTunes, there are high-profile, new release movies trickling in every week, which makes it exciting to check iTunes on Saturday evenings. SVOD services are not yet producing enough originals to match this iTunes dynamic.

Furthermore, almost all the VOD user interfaces reinforce the static nature of their catalog by mimicking the legacy experience of the Blockbuster rental store. Remember spending an hour at the rental store, browsing aisles after aisles of DVD boxes, trying to find the perfect movie for the evening? We’re still doing it, we’re just at home now. With the exception of search (for when you already know what you want), our VOD user interfaces haven’t changed from the old-school video rentals stores we had in the 80’s. We still browse rows and rows of box art, sometimes giving up before making a decision. We continue to be forced to judge the book by its cover.

The legacy video discovery experience: browsing aisles of box art
The current video discovery experience: browsing rows of box art

Even when the shows and movies featured in SVOD’s rows rotate and change from day to day, the overwhelming interface makes it’s hard to take it all in. Certainly no quick dopamine fix. You don’t see people pulling out their phone to check Netflix while waiting for a meeting to start; that’s not a thing people do. They check Facebook or email. Even with all the effort that SVOD services have put into personalization and recommendations, finding new shows to watch remains a disjointed, out-of-app, word-of-mouth exercise. Friends and family are still the primary way we learn about new shows and movies.

The big opportunity for the entertainment industry is to figure out how to incorporate the dopamine hit into new digital video services, like we get from the serendipitous discovery via Facebook, and previously via linear TV. Real product innovation is required; it’s not enough to simply put traditional linear TV channels in digital products. Digital users demand much more. Like Facebook, the app must offer up content that is personally relevant to each user, and the user must feel in control of the experience. This is where the traditional linear TV channel comes up short: no personalization and very little user control. We need a new video discovery paradigm that incorporates the variable rewards and immersiveness of linear TV, while still being highly personalized and controllable by the user.

Of course the SVOD services have all grown fantastically well over the last several years, despite their lack of breakthrough innovation on content discovery experience. That’s testament to the sheer power of whenever, wherever. But someone will figure out how to make video discovery a dopamine-filled, fun, and addictive experience and it will expose the weakness of the current, commoditized VOD discovery we have today. It will also demonstrate that finding a new show should be just as entertaining as watching the show itself.

Someone will figure it out.