Netflix’s new ‘Play Something’ button is fine, but it’s not enough

By Jared Newman

April 28, 2021

The long-awaited Netflix shuffle button is here.

Next time you’re unsure what to watch on Netflix, just click “Play Something,” and the service will pick a movie or TV show according to your personal tastes. You’ll find the new button on Netflix’s profile selection page, in the sidebar menu, and on the 10th row of the home screen. If Netflix’s algorithms choose unwisely, you can also hit “Play Something Else,” which will either bring up a new pick, resume a show you’re already watching, or start a selection from your watch list.

Netflix began testing the Play Something button eight months ago and seems to be rolling it out with some fanfare. (It’s announcing the feature in a blog post, with a goofy video of a cartoon remote whose buttons are tired of being pushed.) It’s arguably the company’s most concerted effort yet to cure streaming indecisiveness, and it arrives at a time when there’s more to watch than ever, both from Netflix and from a wave of new streaming competitors.

Netflix’s new ‘Play Something’ button is fine, but it’s not enough |

[Image: courtesy of Netflix]

But while I love the idea of Netflix offering something akin to automated channel flipping, a single shuffle button feels like a half-measure. If Netflix really wants to help solve analysis paralysis, there’s still a lot more it could do. Here’s what I’m hoping Netflix considers next:

Embrace linear TV

While I once assumed that on-demand video would subsume live TV for everything besides news and sports, the success of linear streaming channels has proven otherwise.

Pluto TV, which mimics a cable-style grid guide with round-the-clock streaming channels, has 43 million users tuning in every month, and it’s prompted a wave of imitators since ViacomCBS acquired it in 2019. Between the Roku Channel (which itself has more than 160 linear channels), Tubi, Plex, Peacock, Sinclair’s Stirr, and the preloaded linear TV apps on many smart TVs (including those from Samsung, LG, and Vizio), linear channels are making a comeback as a way to cure indecision.

These options have downsides, though: They’re all supported by ads, and in many cases they don’t let you pause, rewind, or fast-forward whatever’s on. By offering its own channels with no commercial breaks and no limits on time-shifting, Netflix could be the killer app for linear TV. (Clearly the company has thought about it, as it’s testing a single linear TV channel in France.)

Netflix’s new ‘Play Something’ button is fine, but it’s not enough |
[Image: courtesy of Netflix]

Personalize the playlist

Even if Netflix doesn’t dive into linear channels, it could at least build upon the Play Something button with more ways to customize what comes up.

When I’m not sure what to watch, I’m usually still in the mood for a specific genre or format, whether it’s a comedy special, a weird sci-fi show, or a dumb action movie. Perhaps Netflix could scatter more genre-specific Play Something buttons within its various submenus, or add branching paths to its Play Something Else button so you can narrow down the possibilities.

That’s not to say the Play Something button itself should become an overwhelming source of options, but surely there’s a way to balance the simplicity of a single button with the ability to fine-tune the results.

Don’t be an anti-aggregator

You know what would be even better than solving indecision within Netflix? Preventing people from having to open the Netflix app in the first place. Streaming devices like Apple TV and the new Chromecast with Google TV are great at providing recommendations straight from their respective home screens, so you can figure out what to watch without having to jump into each app separately.


Netflix’s new ‘Play Something’ button is fine, but it’s not enough |

[Image: courtesy of Netflix]

Sadly, Netflix is often the odd streaming service out in these aggregated menus. Apple’s “TV” app, which acts as a universal guide to streaming services, has never integrated with Netflix, and Google TV abruptly lost integration with Netflix originals last December. And when you search for a specific genre on Roku devices, Netflix content doesn’t show up in the results.

Netflix can get away with this because its app is still a destination unto itself—a place you go when you don’t know what to watch elsewhere. The new Play Something button benefits from this pattern, but perhaps unsurprisingly, does little to break it.