Give us shuffle and playlists

It’s time to talk about the biggest and most irritating oversight of the streaming revolution: No playlists, no shuffle.

What gives, Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and Disney+ and every other video streaming service? I realize that new features take work, they don’t simply appear with a snap of the fingers. Is it because no one’s asked outright?

If that’s the case, hey. Hi. Can we please have a way to create playlists of our favorite TV episodes? And then a way to shuffle-play those playlists? If I’m being honest, shuffle is the more important piece here.

This goes back to the VHS days. As a Gen Xer, I grew up watching The Simpsons during its best years. And I still have fond memories of filling up VHS tapes with strings of commercial-free episodes that I could watch whenever. In an era before “binge TV” was a concept, this was what we did.

Now, in 2020, we have access to so much more. And sure, plenty of TV shows these days are built as serial narratives that wouldn’t necessarily work as well if you watch them in some random order. But shows like Friends, Seinfeld, The Office (+ anything from Mike Schur, really), and even The Simpsons are still widely beloved, and regular sources of comfort viewing during meals or before bed.

Even if none of those are your faves, most of us have one show or another that we like to turn on in the background. And the proliferation of streaming services has made it so most of those classics are never more than a few clicks away. 

Attempts have been made before. Way back in 2010, a very young Hulu allowed users to make playlists. That feature has since transformed into the “My Stuff” favorites page, but you can’t organize it into named playlists or add individual TV episodes. Some of Hulu’s shows do offer curated episode playlists, but not all of them. Years later in 2016, Netflix took a crack at playlists with Flixtape. But that one was more about making a sort of shareable mixtape for streaming movies or shows, and it didn’t last very long. 

This is what a curated playlist looks like on Hulu

This is what a curated playlist looks like on Hulu

Image: Hulu – screenshot by mashable

Netflix subscribers did get a glimmer of hope on the shuffle front almost a year ago, in April 2019. The service tested a shuffle feature for TV shows, but only in the Android app. The feature itself has yet to surface for wider use, and while I’d welcome it with open arms I also think it’s not nearly as useful if you can’t make playlists, too.

That might not be an issue for long, though. Netflix introduced Top 10 lists in Feb. 2020. Their initial form is very basic and limited to top-level looks at what’s popular in the TV and movie categories. The lists are also woven into the standard website experience, appearing as one more row alongside  things like “Watch It Again” and “Trending Now.” Playlists, on the other hand, would probably require some changes or additions to the user interface. But lists! On Netflix! Slow progress is still progress.

Hulu made a very limited attempt at shuffle as well. Also in 2019, and part of Seinfeld‘s 30th anniversary, the service added a shuffle button just for that series. But it came with a catch: The feature was only available through the Apple TV Hulu app. I don’t know if it’s still there (I don’t own an Apple TV), but that so-called “Yada Yada Yada” button doesn’t appear on the website or any of my other Hulu apps.

The Simpsons came the closest to getting it right. Before Disney’s Fox acquisition and the launch of Disney+, the entire Simpsons streaming catalog was available on a website branded entirely around that one show. And on that site, there was a homepage option you could click that would simply serve up a random episode.

Further, while you couldn’t create playlists of your own on Simpsons World (I don’t think?), the site did offer a wide selection of curated playlists. Those were pretty good. Everyone has their opinions on which episodes and seasons are best, but there’s a lot of crossover and mutual agreement in those opinions. So curated playlists worked well there.

Can we please have a way to create playlists? And a way to shuffle-play them?

It’s strange to me that no one in the streaming space has gotten a handle on this yet. Especially when you think about the fact that many of the people making decisions at these companies also came up during the era of VHS recordings and mixtapes. But I’m here, I’m writing this all down. Let’s talk practical applications.

On the playlist side, it’ll be most useful for TV shows specifically. People should be able to add individual episodes for “greatest hits” purposes. I don’t necessarily want to watch any Simpsons episode from across history, but being able to set up a bucket with a selection of favorite episodes from the early seasons would be huge.

The playlists should be able to have custom names, and separately, they shouldn’t be limited to one series at a time. I love Mike Schur’s shows and some of you probably do too. Wouldn’t it be great to have a streaming list of all your favorite Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine, The Good Place, and The Office episodes all in one place? (The answer is yes. Yes, it would be great.)

Importantly: If at all possible, don’t put a cap on playlist size! If there has to be one, make that number as large as you reasonably can. There’s almost 700 episodes of The Simpsons and while some people might just want a bucket of 25-50 episodes, others might have a list of favorites that extends into the hundreds. Not many shows have lasted for quite as long, but the ones we normally think of as “comfort TV” have been around long enough that a playlist cap of 10 or 20 would feel too small very quickly.

Finally, we need a shuffle-play button. Stick it right next to the regular play button. You can watch your playlist in order or, if you prefer, let a computer decide for you what’s next. There should also be a way to skip ahead quickly. Most streaming services that have TV shows already let you jump to the next episode by clicking a little prompt in the media controls overlay.

Being able to share playlists among friends would be a nice touch as well. I know most of our streaming services don’t have much in the way of dedicated social features, but even just having the ability to pull out a playlist link just like you can on Spotify would be huge. The mixtape days of the ’80s and ’90s are long over, but curating a selection of your favorite TV episodes feels like a perfect evolution of that idea for our streaming present.

It’s time, streaming services. People are cutting the cord left and right, and they’re likewise starting to view subscriptions to Netflix and the like as essential. So give the people what they want. Let us make our mixtapes, share our mixtapes, and most importantly, shuffle our mixtapes.

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