A.V. Club: The Convenience Trap


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Writer Sam Adams has an interesting perspective on Netflix’s recent rate hikes and the unintended consequences of pushing users away from discs-by-mail and towards streaming.

“As critic and historian Dave Kehr is often moved to point out, the prevailing myth that ‘everything is on DVD’ is hilariously wrong. Every time a new technology takes over, a chunk of film history gets left behind. Movies that were mainstays of undergraduate film classes have been marginalized as colleges and universities zero out rental budgets and build new classrooms that only allow for projection from digital sources.”

I actually don’t quite agree that some film history is lost “every time” there’s a technological shift, or at least I don’t agree that it’s quite that simple. The advent of home video resulted in an explosion of movie availability, and I have greater access to films today than ever before. But it’s also true that not every film on a reel made it to VHS, and not every one of those made it to DVD, etc. In this argument, it’s important to weigh the benefits of availability as well as the lost inventory.

Still, I think Adams is essentially correct in his assertion that with this specific shift, from discs to on demand services, there is a very real danger of losing a nontrivial subset of the films once available on disc. As he argues:

“The services offering access to a bottomless library of content continue to multiply, but for myriad reasons ranging from licensing restrictions to tangled chains of custody, these services are critically flawed.”

It seems inevitable that most of our entertainment media will soon be accessed primarily via subscription or via on demand purchases — via Netflix, Spotify and Kindle — and that it’s not a safe bet to assume that everything that was available to us in physical form will be available to us as bits.

Read full article here.

  1. Although they were late to the cloud game, I definitely feel like Apple contributed to this step forward.

    The lack of an optical drive on the original Macbook Air was absolutely huge. There was an outcry at first, but as streaming services improved in number and in quality, consumers realized how little they used “hard” media like CD’s, and now it seems like an inspired decision.

  2. The transitions from reel to VHS and then from VHS to DVD required far more effort than the transition from DVD to online delivery. Because DVDs are already digital, it’s just a matter of moving a file from one storage location to another.

    The barrier in this transition is almost entirely one of licensing, and as bit torrent use has shown, that barrier is relatively weak. Adams says, “For me, a great film always took effort.” That effort is now going to involve several more clicks when dominant streaming services don’t offer the movie you want.

  3. The other thing fascinating about Netflix’s push away from mail-order is that originally their business was based on the evergreen value of long tail selection of movies. And that by building a distribution network that could take advantage of harnessing a long tail, they created a unique advantage over anyone trying to break into the business with just “hits”.

    With the move to digital streaming, the reset button has been hit, they no longer have a long tail of selection like they did in the mail order space. So in addition to leaving films behind, I think there are a whole set of customers they are leaving behind who valued Netflx for incredible selection.

  4. Vijay: I think that’s exactly right. I tried to articulate this when I wrote about Netflix back in March, but you’ve expressed much more better than I did. In the process of moving away from the long tail, they may end up disappointing some of us for whom that was the original value.

  5. Some are arguing that Apple can buy Hulu and release their own TV to integrate with itunes, kill netflix and add $100b to their market capitalization.

  6. Netflix by mail has been a good source of hard to find films. In contrast to Blockbuster and physical rental and retail stores, it is excellent.
    What worries me is now the control of media is in the hands of the streaming company. Hopefully antitrust laws govern this as much as movie theaters and phone companies.
    It would be sad to see movies not streamed because they are too old or not making money. (Although, I doubt that will happen as, storing a rarely picked movie for streaming cost virtually nothing. You should see the tons of old junk out there that is streaming too.)
    Hulu has the Criterion collection. If you are film buff or interested in film history, watch as many as you can! Start with Kurosawa and Italian directors. Netflix probably has all the same movies on DVD with some on streaming.
    I will go out on a limb and predict that some kind of cross platform media browser like Plex will emerge that lets any movie maker/distributor show whatever they want and be paid. If I am interested in a movie, I search for it, then I am told it is made by Miramax or Sony or whoever. It tells me how much to watch and then I watch it on HDTV or iPad. Bundled tickets could be a way to save money and watch more movies more cheaply. No Apple, no Netflix, etc. involved. Just the company or companies that handle the transaction between me and the movie makers. The software media browser would be free but just does one thing really well: show movies.
    Actually, Plex is partly like this already.

  7. I actually welcome Netflix’s ultimatum. About 1.5 years ago, we dumped cable, to save both money and distraction. We’ve been Netflix subscribers for roughly as long. We initially used the DVD service primarily, but have adapted to the streaming offering.

    This has led to distraction bleeding back into our lives. The ease of consumption combined with the occasional furious searching for “something to watch” has made the viewing experience less special.

    We’re opting for DVD delivery. The catalog is larger, but more than that, the temporal scarcity makes us focus a bit more on how we’re spending the time. That’s the hypothesis, anyway.

  8. It’s worth remembering that Netflix (like Hulu) is still only in north America. Although there are rumours that it’s planning to launch in Europe, these are unconfirmed.

    Even the most generous – read ‘expensive’ – European broadband packages have tended to cap monthly usage at 40GB (that’s up and down combined, torrent sharers). Most peoples’ broadband packages are between 1GB and 10GB per month.

    For me, the cost of Netflix or its equivalent (like the pre-existing LoveFilm from Amazon with its catalogue of a 1,000 online films) would be Б6/$10 minimum subscription PLUS an extra Б30/$50 per month for truly unlimited broadband. That’s not happening soon.

    Away from monetary concerns, I know that the BFI (British Film Institute) are actively digitising as much of my country’s film history as possible and making it available for free for online viewing, so all hope might not be lost.

    Could the AFI not adopt a similar approach?

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