October 29, 2016

Watching: The New York Times’ New Recommendations Website

A selection of moods from the New York Times' new recommendations site Watching.

Back in the olden days before the Internet, movie recommendations largely came from two places — newspapers and word of mouth. I attended high school and college in the ‘90s, and my guides were local critics, Siskel & Ebert, and Entertainment Weekly. The Internet was just getting rolling and not yet a prime spot for film info. We’re in a different stratosphere today. The problem isn’t lack of details but an overwhelming cacophony of noise.

Streaming services now dominate the pop culture landscape, but their suggestion tools have limitations. No single provider holds enough films and TV to fulfill our wants either. We need a service that can sift through the crowd and find the gems. Entering the fray is the new site Watching from the New York Times. Its simple purpose is “to help you make decisions about what you should watch next.” Instead of presenting everything, experts narrow the focus to movies and series that you must see. It’s a tricky balance to include great options without piling on too many possibilities.

I’ve spent the past few days testing Watching to see if it works for my interests. It’s the kind of site that will likely evolve and grow. We’ll continue to see new providers join the field, and this system allows for regular adjustments. It’s an interesting combination of a recommendation engine and a blog spotlighting the best films and TV. There’s also an option to receive a bi-weekly newsletter that will offer top choices for people with little time to navigate the site.

A sample of features in the New York Times' Watching tool.

The Main Page

Watching’s hub uses a simple design that seems fitting for tablets and phones. Even without using the Discover tool for recommendations, you can learn plenty about what’s happening. The “Recommendation of the Day” makes it easy to find a solid choice. The site currently lists Jane the Virgin, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Mountains May Depart among their daily picks. Each one includes a short blurb plus reasons to watch or skip it. Not everyone will want to dive into Chef’s Table (last Monday’s pick), so it’s good to have some background.

Other helpful aspects are timely articles that connect to the day and time of year. For example, readers looking for haunted house movies this weekend should enjoy the list of streaming possibilities. The picks from Scott Tobias include classics like The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill (the original versions, thankfully) along with such recent fare as The Innkeepers and Crimson Peak. Other articles provide helpful info about shows leaving Netflix and answers to reader questions. It’s easy to use and packs a lot of good material into a small space.

The Discover Tool

Watching’s centerpiece is its ability to provide specific choices based on our preferences. We begin by choosing what we’re in the mood to see. The 28 options include “Character-Driven”, “Bloody”, “Strong Female Lead”, and just “Explosions”. You can only make one selection, however. I’m surprised you aren’t able to pick several moods. I suspect that set-up would be too complex. The next screen gives suggestions but lets you select a genre and narrow the results. There are 12 streaming providers listed, with the glaring omission of HBO GO. Some picks also offer sub-genres to narrow the search even more. By that point, you typically only have a few options remaining.

An unfortunate restriction is the inability to eliminate films that you’ve already watched. Particularly with TV series, there were plenty listed that I’d seen. The danger in offering this option is giving zero recommendations. For example, picking “Dialogue-Rich” and “Action” only reveals Justified. I’ve caught the entire series, so it doesn’t work for me. There is definitely some trial and error involved. Watching also provides a search function to investigate further and a watchlist to save your choices.

An example of results from specific picks in the New York Times' Watching tool.

Testing the Model

My enjoyment of Watching mostly came from trying out different combinations and seeing what clicked. I’ve listed some examples below where I chose the mood and genre. I should also note that I restricted my streaming services to Netflix and Amazon Prime to match what I use most regularly. Checking other providers like Hulu, iTunes, and VUDU would definitely expand the list. Let’s see what results showed up for my various picks:

  • Witty, Fantasy — Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Stylish, Comedy — Clueless
  • Brainteasing, Documentary — Dinosaur 13, Room 237, Exit Through the Gift Shop
  • Bloody, Action — Daredevil, The Walking Dead, The Pacific, Sons of Anarchy, Band of Brothers
  • Joke-Heavy, Comedy —26 recommendations
  • Strong Female Lead, Drama — 41 recommendations

As you can see, the quantity can vary dramatically based on your selections. Larger categories like Drama and Comedy deliver more than smaller ones like Fantasy. The sub-genre option is important for the broader groups. Here are three examples from the above test but narrowed down with an additional sub-genre:

  • Bloody, Action, Soapy — Sons of Anarchy
  • Joke-Heavy, Comedy, British — Catastrophe, The Trip
  • Strong Female Lead, Drama, Legal — The Good Wife, Damages

The results were TV-heavy for me, but that relates more to what’s offered by Netflix and Amazon. Both are focusing on grabbing the biggest TV series instead of the top movies. The streaming model is also built for binge watching shows in this era of peak TV.

A tweet from Scott Tobias about his work on the New York Times' Watching tool.

An Expert Presence

The greatest benefit of having Watching at the New York Times is the way it involves such intelligent voices. Scott Tobias and Margaret Lyons are two of the many smart writers involved with the site. The site can also link to reviews from the New York Times’ regular critics and provide short videos about the movies. Integrating the two sites is crucial to selling the value. I suspect that some cinephiles will grumble about not having more obscure movies listed. It should work for most visitors, though. I’ve seen thousands of movies, yet I still found good options listed.

The challenge for Watching going forward is to provide a valuable service that meets each person’s needs. I like where it’s started and love the critical voices they’ve included. No matter how much Netlix tweaks the algorithm, their suggestions rarely connect. I’m hopeful that Watching can do more than just list popular shows and movies. If the writers continue to provide quality content and the technical aspects improve, it should succeed. The foundation is in place for a helpful tool in the increasingly complex Internet age for pop culture.

Watching is available to both New York Times subscribers and any registered users. Learn more by checking out the Watching site. 

2 comments:

  1. Interesting there's an expert presence, it can be tough by yourself to find the cream of the crop. Of course with these selections I would stil have to pick and choose, a film such as Crimson Peak is divisive on Rotten Tomatoes. 'Watching' reminds me a little of TasteKid, only more elaborate. Thanks for the article on this, I might give it a go.

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    1. Hey Chris; good to hear from you! I think that Watching works best with its articles and recommendations of the day. I also like how it has links to the recaps of the major TV shows. The suggestions based on mood and genre are a mixed bag. I suspect they'll add more and make it better as we go. It's a decent way to learn about a lesser-known gem at least. Still, you bring up a good point that it's hard to predict what people will like with something like Crimson Peak. Some critics loved it, while others were disappointed. It's cool to have more tools to navigate all the different movies and TV, even if it's not perfect.

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