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Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and Other Streaming Platforms Need to Rethink Auto-Play for TV Shows — Opinion

Making the choice to start the next episode automatically is bad for viewers and the shows themselves.

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It’s still early enough in 2019 to make New Year’s resolutions, and here is one that all streaming platforms should strongly consider: Ending the auto-play feature altogether.

This goes beyond a plea on behalf of those who might find themselves dozing off in front of a screen, only to wake up hours later to discover that those weird dreams they just had were because they watched half a season of “Game of Thrones” in their sleep.

This is not an argument against binge-viewing, to be clear, but instead a request for control over the binge-viewing experience to default to the user — and for auto-playing to not be the default.

Most services provide the option to disable auto-play, but it’s sometimes hard to find. The link for Netflix’s disable-autoplay settings is at the very bottom of the Your Account page, under “Playback Settings.” Hulu makes it a setting buried within the player itself; Amazon has multiple makes the option available, but buries it within the user preferences.

Meanwhile, HBO Go/Now has no such option at all. Instead, it pushes viewers into the next episode with no other option. “Auto-play was one of the most highly requested features from our subscribers on HBO NOW and HBO GO,” a spokesperson for HBO told IndieWire. “We’re constantly monitoring consumer feedback and making updates to our streaming platforms to give our viewers the best possible experience.”

Beyond the basic fact that the best user experience is one where the user has the ability to control their experience, there are a few important reasons why auto-play is a menace:

Data and power aren’t free. If you’re not careful about your viewing settings, then you could find yourself using up all your allotted data, or all the battery life in for the device in question. It goes beyond mobile streaming as well: Very soon, consumers could find themselves much more conscious of how much content in general they’re streaming on Netflix and Amazon. Thanks to a reversal of FCC regulations, internet service providers could potentially find ways to charge them more for doing so in the future.

Why not let viewers set their own pace? When auto-play is disabled on the services that allow it, it means that viewers get to do the following things:

  1. Pause for a moment, and take in what they just watched.
  2. Actually remember what they just watched.
  3. Decide if they want to watch more.

This is increasingly important in an era when TV is evolving with the advances of this sort of technology, but still thrives when its serialized nature is allowed to present itself. There is a reason why critics now roll their eyes at the cliche of creators saying that they made “a 10-hour movie” — maybe sometimes, great stories come out of it. But the best TV more often than not leans into its existence as episodes that together make up a season.

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There is real skill involved in making a show where every episode can be described by the lexicon immortalized by “Friends” episode titles — “The One Where…” — and yet still come together to feel like something greater than the sum of its parts. And auto-play has a bad habit of degrading the hard work that goes into that.

Of course, the feature makes sense for streaming platforms, since so many series these days are now consciously designed to be binged. It’s not so much that creators are actively designing storylines around the whole idea of a “10-hour movie,” but many of the shows affected by auto-play are run by people aware of how their audiences are consuming them.

However, that has led to a new phenomenon: More often than not, shows are creating figurative speed bumps — episodes typically landing in the second half of a season that shake up the show’s formula in a dramatic way. Recent examples include Amazon’s “Forever,” which devoted its sixth episode (out of eight) to two brand-new characters, and Hulu’s “The Bisexual,” in its fifth episode of six, which contained an epic 10-year flashback.

Auto-play isn’t the reason these episodes happen, but it’s all part of the same battle: trying to break up the viewing experience, if only to make sure that the episodes being consumed prove memorable.

Most streaming services make it possible to disable the feature, but it’s not the default option, and casual users might not see the value in figuring out just how to shut it down. So here’s a plea to make it easier for people. Make it feel like they’re in control. In chaotic times, this might be the greatest customer service gift these services can provide.

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