Can an Algorithm Restore the “Lean-Back” UX of Classic TV?

Long for the days of almost effortless TV watching? Ever wish watching TV was as easy as watching TikTok? These are the questions that Eli Chamberlin, Reelgood’s Head of Product and Design has been thinking about lately. For his take on the lean-back experience, read on. 

When we talk with streamers dealing with decision fatigue, many of them still hold onto some hope that a perfect all-knowing algorithm will restore the lean-back experience of watching TV. With improved technology, we expect to be able to turn on our TVs and the content we want to watch should just appear. Surely the algorithms are good enough by now, so where is this experience?

It exists, it’s just not on our TVs — it’s on our phones and it’s called TikTok. When we open the app, based on our previous interactions, TikTok can offer us what we want. We move up and down – just like changing a channel. With each input, it learns and offers us something even better. 

If TikTok can know what we want, then why can’t this experience be available to viewers on the big screen? Why aren’t streaming services able to emulate TikTok’s success? Here are a few possible blockers::

Why the TikTok experience isn’t available on our TVs

  1. Our TVs just do not know us as well as our phones do. Our TV hasn’t been tracking our every move online and offline and it lacks the interconnectivity and sometimes even the basic processing power to anticipate our needs and capture our attention the way our phones do.
  2. We don’t want our most personal suggestions on the big screen. Just as we would be reluctant to hand our phones to someone and let them scroll through our most personalized feeds, we certainly wouldn’t want that level of personal experience on the biggest screen in the home for all to see.
  3. Personalization is difficult when they don’t know who’s watching or who’s in the room. While many streaming platforms can make suggestions, they just aren’t as strong as the ones we encounter on apps like TikTok or Instagram. What’s more, TV watching is often a shared experience and just because we share an account doesn’t mean we share the same watching habits. 
  4. Services fear that if they show us the wrong content, audiences with abandon their app. On one hand, top-tier SVOD services like Netflix want to showcase their robust, updated catalog. On the other hand, AVOD services like Pluto, are not particularly beholden to massive catalog investments and so they can restore a lean-back UX. In short, they are less concerned with quality than quantity.
  5. Walled gardens of content are standing in the way of flow. While TikTok has all our interaction data and all the content under one roof, the same is not true for streaming services. They only have a piece of our viewing and only a piece of the content we want to see, so they can’t create your “perfect” channel as they don’t have the data or content to do so.

Where the lean-back experience meets personalization

So, is a personalized lean-back experience in our future, and if so, where will it come from? 

The short answer — we just don’t know yet. However, if we use what we already know about tv watching and personalization, we could guess that the rise of FAST channels will shift  UI/UX paradigms that will move the needle for app-based content discovery. At Reelgood, as we continue to understand what content people watch and how they watch we hope that in the future it could be possible to pull programming from services to create perfect blocks of watchable content. We’re not there yet, but we hope to someday make content discovery just as delightful as the content itself.