The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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  • Instead of endlessly moaning about the supposed lack of serendipity on the internet, why can’t we try new ways to automate it?


  • When I started college, you could watch Simpsons reruns for 90 minutes straight. The dorms picked up two different Fox channels that syndicated the show; one played it at 6 and 7, the other at 6 and 6:30. So if you were watching at 6, you could also pick which episode you wanted to watch. Sometimes, if both weren’t that interesting, or if you’d seen them recently, we’d just cut out for dinner and pick up the later episode. Usually, that wasn’t a problem; the Simpsons had been on for nine seasons, and nearly every episode was a classic.
  • If The Simpsons didn’t work, you could watch Law & Order on A&E. Or Bravo. Or TNT. Or Lifetime. I may be misremembering all of the channels the show was on at once, but there’s a reason why people (like, say, writers on The Simpsons) would joke about watching 14 straight hours of Law & Order on basic cable. The show was on a lot. And again, it hadn’t been on for twenty years with multiple spinoffs yet. Not every episode was great, but every episode was classic Law & Order, usually better casual dramatic entertainment than 90% of what was on then, let alone now.
  • If neither The Simpsons nor Law & Order were available, you could always watch The Shawshank Redemption. ALWAYS. I’ve seen this movie at least fifty times; I’ve probably seen it from-the-beginning, not-edited-for-TV once or twice.
  • Have you ever noticed what PBS does during pledge season, at least every other year? They play Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Or some other crazy-ass, awesome, twenty-year-old documentary or costume drama series. And I watch it. Randomly, in pieces, over and over again.


  • When people talk about serendipity, they’re not always talking about discovering something that’s totally brand-new. In fact, I’d hazard that they’re USUALLY talking about randomly unearthing something that’s comforting and familiar.
  • This is ten times more true with television.
  • But it’s true in other media, too. People like being able to browse through their own physical book and music collections, because you never know what might suddenly force itself upon you. The real anti-serendipitous edge to social networks like Facebook isn’t that they don’t introduce us to anyone new; it’s that they eliminate the unexpected meeting-up with a friend or former classmate. You don’t get to catch up because you’ve never fully lost touch.


  • You actually can’t watch really old episodes of The Simpsons or Law & Order online. They have the new shows on Hulu and and whatnot, but the syndication is a completely different deal. This saddens me.
  • Watching a syndicated Simpsons or Law & Order rerun isn’t actually random. It’s chance, which is different. Why not make it actually random?
  • This is Showroulette. You pick a show — let’s say that every show’s gotta have enough episodes to be in syndication, and only the backlist shows are available. Save the new ones for your running-show website — and you get a random episode.
  • This is the genius part, at least for me. Say you don’t like the episode you got. (I mean, sometimes Law & Order kinda stunk.) You can change it out for a different show, also picked at random. But every time you switch, you’ve got to watch an ad.
  • There are ads for the act breaks, too. Here, though, you can switch to a different episode without starting over – kinda like flipping the channel.

Come on! Tell me you wouldn’t try this! Tell me that 10% of you wouldn’t become obsessed with it.

Tell me there’s a better way to sell ads for older shows in syndication. Tell me there’s a better way to make a little more money off of long-running TV series without cannibalizing DVD sales. Tell me why this wouldn’t actually be better for most casual TV-watching (i.e., 90% of TV-watching) than any other online TV.

Tell me it wouldn’t be better to spin to a random episode of Soap or Hill Street Blues or Star Trek or The Bernie Mac Show than some random dude or chick or cat who might not even want to chat with you.

But mostly I want you to tell me ways to make this idea better. Or bigger. Or, just, more.


I think this is a fantastic idea.

While you’re at it, throw in the kind of movies that used to run on weekend afternoons on WXON Ch. 20 in Detroit. (For those not from southeast Michigan, think the catalog of movies that MST3K pulled from).

There is so much TV and film out there that deserves to be unearthed. Some of it is great and some of it is terrible, but even the terrible stuff could spur the creation of something amazing.

(I also miss the 90 minute Simpsons block. The TV in the Brody cafe was generally tuned to it, so we’d laugh and riff on the episodes while we ate)

This is how I kind of feel when I’m in a hotel room with like 100 channels. Assuming about 20 seconds per channel as I switch, it takes about half an hour to cross around to the start again. At which point most channels have gone on to another show. I can lose 3 hours in a hotel room and never see more than 20 seconds of any given show.

So yes, I think this site would destroy me.

Also, who is moaning about a lack of serendipity?

Tim Carmody says…

I was thinking about things like this dumb-ass op-ed, which I think I blogged about here last year.

Tim Carmody says…

In fact, I did blog about said op-ed here last year.

What’s wrong with bringing back the old style of TV in favor of nostalgia. I like watching four random episodes of Saved By The Bell (two normal, and then two College Years episodes on TBS). I’d love to see the Ronald McDonald Christmas commercial where he helps that little kid ice skating.

Hell, you could monetize by running old ads for companies, as TV advertising is little more than brand reinforcement anyways.

Imagine, instead, if you could say, “Show me 8pm on Friday, Autumn 1989”, and BOOM!, you’ve got some Family Matters and Zack the Lego Maniac on your TV.

One could even piece together old VHS tapes purchased en masse on eBay.

A few Christmases ago, we whipped up something to emulate the idea:

Fun! But while showing Simpsons episodes all day long seems like a positive thing, I wonder if advertisers would find as much value in the consumers watching Treehouse of Horror XIII at 11:30 a.m. on a weekday…

So how about a schedule? Run the demographic data and figure out how to match the timing with the market — there’s a reason the Simpsons runs in that time slot in syndication, because college kids and twentysomething slackers in the target market don’t watch local news over dinner.

Shawshank Redemption, OTOH, is an anytime snack.

I don’t know if a 24 hr Simpsons channel with a fixed schedule is a bad idea, but it’s a very different idea. I think TiVo and TV on the web have generally been oriented against the “best-time-for-most-people” model in favor of the “right time for me” model. I mean, who says I don’t want to watch “Treehouse of Horror” at 10 am? If I don’t, I just hit “try again.”

If I’m at the site, I’m part of a self-selected group. I want to watch a good show, and I don’t especially care which one. Don’t make me browse through multiple seasons and episodes. Just give me one. If I don’t like it, I’ll tell you, and if I do, I’ll tell you that, too. Maybe over time you could develop a Netflix/Amazon-like recommendation algorithm to better improve the “selections,” but until then, why not embrace impersonal personalization? “Surprise me.”

Very similar idea:

Tim Carmody says…

Yes. Actually, “Random Trek,” an offshoot/subset of the same project, might be an implementation that’s even closer to what I’m thinking.

Matt says…

Ironically, I found thid post through Google Reader’s recommended items, a great source of serendipity. There’s also Reddit’s random button, or Stumble Upon, but I’ve found those wrecked my attention span.

You’re right – this is a great idea!

Some sort of algorithm would be a necessity, I think. I bet you are tonnes of people who watch both The Simpsons and The Family Guy, but a lot of the time I don’t really want to watch the latter.

In a weird way, I think Google Reader Play is a good analogy for this. It’s based on what you like and share etc., but it’s new things that you haven’t seen before. It’s the best thing to read while in bed when you just can’t be arsed to go out and search for something else. It’s like it combines the ‘involuntary’ part of TV with the choice of the web. In my mind, a service like this do just that: give you a stream of shows that you can switch out, but it would be based on ‘taste streams’ (or something) – and as time went on, the algorithm would get smarter and smarter.

Tim Carmody says…

Maybe. At the same time, there’s something to be said for a really DUMB algorithm too. If I pick The Simpsons, just give me a totally random episode of The Simpsons — don’t try to swap in an episode of Family Guy, or try to figure out which season I like to watch or which episode people who live in my city like. Keep it simple — I give you the minimal amount of information (Show + Yes/No), you spit back the same.

I might want to pick a year, say 1992, and then be shown nothing produced after that date during my showroulette nexting.

There would be all kinds of algorithmic geniusness in determining the frequency and age of what earlier shows/movies were displayed to a viewer given the date specified. Like, in this example (1992), if you were going for maximum non-brand-new serendipity, you probably shouldn’t be shown “House Party 2,” since that just came out the previous year. More likely cable flipping fare would be “Cocoon,” from seven years earlier.

Well if we throwing random shows and those basic cable movies you’ve seen a bunch of times (but never more than 10 minutes at a time and it takes you six years to see the entire movie), then I would argue that we’d have to throw in random sporting events as well. And this is the perfect medium for watching sports because you can get sucked into games you don’t care about (I remember watching the entirety of a USA-Brazil under 21 soccer match once, which is the only soccer match I’ve watched start to finish), but sports are also easily flippable from.

It would have to be a super dumb algorithm. The pleasures of mindless channel surfing is that you never can anticipate what’s going to grab your interest. And the net has to be as wide and random as possible. Candlepin bowling from 1972? Post-Duchovney X-Files in 1998? The Ms. Bliss-era of Saved by the Bell? Missing in Action with Chuck Norris? The special episode when Punky Brewster gets locked in a defunct refrigerator?

The appeal of this concept is arbitrary surprise and I would watch the shit out this.

There’s definitely an appeal to BOTH totally random TV (any show, any episode) AND random episodes of particular shows. I’d say there’s an appeal to random episodes of particular genres too (sports, movies, science fiction, etc) and maybe particular time periods (random contemporary TV, random classic sitcoms, etc.)

Sports is kinda tough in one way because of the premium on live events. I could definitely imagine an “ESPNClassicRoulette”-style show, that randomly replayed recordings of great games in a bunch of sports. If it gives you a tennis match, and you don’t care about tennis, click next.

Vajk says…

This idea is top-notch, but what prevents an existing service (I’m looking at you, Hulu) from offering it as an add-on? Wouldn’t that be a bit easier, as they’d also have an existing archive of shows?

Also, you could have “full random” (no settings engaged) and “selective random” where you engage filters for things like air date, series, show type, etc. (for the more discerning viewer, lol).

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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