The Empty Envelope

March 28, 2011

UPDATE, 3/31/11: Since I posted this on Monday, it has been re-blogged by Missing Remote, Home Media Magazine, the Steve Hoffman Music Forums, and the Hacking Netflix blog.  The last two links in particular contain a number of reader comments that are worth a look – and not just because the overwhelming majority echo my disappointment with Netflix’s dwindling selection of physical media.  Unlike this space, some of those blogs are probably on the radar of Netflix’s management.  Hopefully, some of the executive types there will get the message.

Dear Stephen,

Thanks for your six years of valued patronage, and the several thousand dollars you’ve spent on our service.  You, however, are now the kind of Luddite for whom we no longer have any use.  You with your Blu-ray player and your fetish for things like comprehensive selection and image quality.  Get lost, jerk.  Take your business to Blockbuster (even though they suck far more than we ever could), or to your local brick-and-mortar store (even though we drove the last of those out of business long ago; oops!), or Amazon.com (although if you could afford to buy all those DVDs, you wouldn’t have needed us in the first place, would you?).

So have fun in the new world of streaming video, and don’t let the mailbox door hit you on your way out!

Cheers,

Netflix

No, I didn’t actually receive that letter.  But I might as well have.  And if you’re both a Netflix subscriber and the kind of person who reads this blog, I’ll bet you’ve gotten the same message in one way or another.

What am I talking about?  Just this: Within the last year or two, Netflix has quietly stopped purchasing the majority of new catalog titles that debut on home video.

As of this writing, Netflix still buys most Criterion DVDs, but not necessarily their Blu-rays or the vital box sets on their sub-label Eclipse.  Almost every other independent label is shut out, and even the major studios’ catalog releases are often passed over.

As a way of taking stock, here are a few of the catalog DVDs singled out for attention so far this year by the New York Times’s home video columnist, Dave Kehr: Luchino Visconti’s Technicolor melodrama Senso (Criterion); Fellini’s I Clowns and the Fernando Di Leo Collection of Italian crime movies (Raro/Entertainment One); the twisted film noir classic The Prowler (VCI); a remastered trio of early Roger Corman sci-fi flicks including Not of This Earth and War of the Satellites (Shout Factory); and a Rita Hayworth set (Sony) including the DVD debuts of Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome.

How many of those films does Netflix carry?  Not one of them.

One distributor, told by Netflix that they would acquire a film if an unspecified number of users “saved” it to their rental queues, started a successful Facebook campaign to force Netflix to stock one of its recent releases.  But most old movies that come out on DVD don’t have a grass-roots organization to get Netflix’s attention.

(Netflix has since disclosed this policy publicly, although I haven’t seen it work in any other instance.  If you’re reading this and you’re a Netflix customer, try “saving” some of the films I mentioned in the New York Times list above.  Some of them, including The Prowler and the Corman titles, aren’t even in Netflix’s database with a “save” option.)

Blockbuster, my old arch-enemy, has actually distinguished itself by continuing to stock a lot of this new stuff.  Even though its catalog was never very deep compared to Netflix’s, I’ve set up a rental queue on that site that currently contains about fifty discs that are unavailable from its red rival.  So there it is: for the first time in twenty-five years as a home video consumer, I must endure Blockbuster.

Since this is a blog about classic TV, let’s get on topic and look at some of Netflix’s deficiencies in that department.  The most recent DVD releases of The Rockford Files, The Fugitive, Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, The Donna Reed Show, Route 66, The Lucy Show, and Vega$ are all unavailable.  The Twilight Zone and recent seasons of C.S.I. are not rentable on Blu-ray, a format for which Netflix has lately developed a particular aversion.  Nearly the whole catalog of Timeless Media, presently the most important independent label specializing in television, is unknown to Netflix.  That means no Wagon Train, no The Virginian, no Johnny Staccato, no Arrest and Trial, no Soldiers of Fortune, no Coronado 9, and only a stingy helping of Checkmate.

Worst of all, earlier seasons of many popular series – Hawaii Five-O, Murder She Wrote, The Outer Limits, Father Knows Best – have disappeared recently, even though Netflix used to offer them.  All of these shows are still in print, so the likelihood is that Netflix has chosen not to replace discs that get lost or damaged.  And even though it’s not necessary, it appears that Netflix deletes an entire TV season as soon as just one disc from that set is depleted from its inventory.  I suspect that what I’ve noticed is just the tip of the iceberg, and that unless Netflix reverses its policy of not replacing lost discs, we will soon see an epidemic of unavailable classics.

Availability Unknown: An unaltered screen grab of part of my Netflix queue as of March 23, 2011.

How can Netflix abandon DVDs when it is, or was, a disc rental business?  Because of streaming video.  In December, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said that his management team was devoting 98% of its attention to streaming and only 2% on rental by mail.  “Pretty soon, we’re going to be a streaming business that rents some DVDs,” said Hastings.

Watching movies over the internet is an inevitable future.  Already, you can watch content on the internet that you can’t get on DVD.  Later seasons of Have Gun Will Travel and Wagon Train suddenly popped up on Netflix last year, an unexpected bounty for fans accustomed to the agonizing pace of season-by-season DVD releases.  For several years, the online video provider Hulu has offered The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which at Universal’s present rate of progress (in ten years they’ve managed only four out of ten seasons of the half-hour Hitchcock) won’t see a disc release until about 2020.

But the selection of films and TV shows that can be streamed via Netflix or any other online platform is dwarfed by the amount of material that exists on DVD – and Netflix already has a reputation of bulking up its streaming volume with junky public-domain fare.  Netflix brags about how rapidly its streaming catalog is growing, but it makes no effort to match those acquisitions to its existing disc library.  In other words, Netflix passes over films or allows them to drop out of the disc inventory before it acquires streaming licenses for the same films.

What’s even more problematic is that there are many more technical variables with streaming video, and few widely accepted technical standards.  If you get a disc in the mail and there are no scratches on it, you’re good to go.  But to stream a movie successfully, you need (a) an adequate supply of bandwidth from your ISP; (b) an adequate supply of bandwidth on Netflix’s end (apparently streaming video commonly loses quality or experiences interruptions during peak viewing periods); and (c) a good interface to port the digital content to your television (unless you are, to paraphrase David Lynch, one of those people who tries to watch movies on a telephone).  Then there’s the issue of special features – deleted scenes, interviews, audio commentaries – created for DVDs.  So far, when you “stream” a film, you don’t get any of them.

In terms of video masters, Netflix takes whatever it’s given.  A recent deal with the supplier Epix, for instance, added a number of rare Paramount and MGM-owned films to the Netflix catalog.  But while the MGM films were generally backed by pristine HD masters in the right aspect ratio (likely created for MGM’s high-definition cable channel), the Paramount offerings were almost all ancient, unwatchable transfers, cropped on the sides and/or digitally compressed to excess.  In some cases (Jack Smight’s strange dark comedy No Way to Treat a Lady, for instance), a good, widescreen DVD is now out of print and has been superceded by a inferior full-frame streaming master.  And Netflix, like the honey badger, don’t care.

As a pop culture historian, I often cross paths with nostalgists and collectors – people who feel a need to own, in a physical form, the media that holds meaning for them.  So far these good folks have been leading the fight against streaming video.  Unlike them, I don’t care whether or not all twelve seasons of Murder, She Wrote are sitting on my shelf.  In fact, I would rather have an uncluttered home, with all of the TV shows I enjoy stored on a hard drive in some other city.  But not – and this is the battle that we are in danger of losing – not if image quality is sacrificed for convenience, and not unless the extras that were on the disc remain available online.

Netflix, in devoting itself so slavishly to streaming technology, seems to think it can position itself at the iTunes of movies.  I’m not so sure.  I think Netflix is more likely to end up as the Vestron Video of the twenty-first century.  Vestron, you’ll recall, was an independent label that thrived in the mid-eighties by licensing movies from the major studios and releasing them on VHS – until the studios realized that there was serious money to be made in videotape.  Suddenly, no more Vestron.  I don’t believe that the studios will ever license their most valuable content – the newest hits, the Academy Award winners, the current Nielsen champions – to Netflix for streaming.  The big content owners will build their own platforms, separately or together, and leave Netflix out in the cold.

But that’s Netflix’s problem, not mine, and as yet I don’t really care who wins the streaming war.  What does infuriate me is that Netflix is abandoning DVD before it should, and that it has not been honest with its customers in this regard.  The once-mighty stream of DVD releases has slowed to a trickle now.  Netflix could continue to stock every major disc release using only a fraction of the acquisitions budget that it once required.  Instead its leadership chooses not to devote even those meager sums to physical media – sums that account for the margin between profit and loss for many small DVD companies that still fight the good fight to put out rare films and TV shows.

The disc will be dead on its own soon enough.  Netflix should not be an accomplice to its murder.

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14 Responses to “The Empty Envelope”

  1. roadgeek Says:

    Stunning commentary. I forwarded this to the Hacking Netflix blog in the hopes that this will stimulate some sort of public discussion; Netflix may not read your blog but they read his.


  2. Absolutely agree and find your comments sadly true. Now the question is how to save the independents? Would a Netflix-style company based solely in independent and rare movie/television product be able to succeed? I’m afraid the answer is ‘no’ … American’s are sooooo satisfied simply watching mainstream fare and rarely take the time to seek out something which didn’t appear on the screen of a 16 sectioned cinema at the mall.

    So long as Netflix keeps making money, it will only continue to ignore everything you wrote about.

    • DeathShrike Says:

      That “netflix-style company” already exists. It’s called GreenCine, and they focus on indie and rare films.

  3. DeathShrike Says:

    I agree with you 100%. Don’t put up with Blockbuster. Try GreenCine. Takes longer for discs to arrive, but I found over 50 titles that Netflix didn’t have that I wanted, all available immediately. It’s the worthwhile supplement to Netflix as they slowly tell us to go screw.

  4. Sasha Says:

    Your uncluttered home comment. I collect films and my home is hardly considered a clutter and find it odd that having a series of discs stored in a closet or on a shelf would be considered clutter. Do you live a minimalists life? On chair per room? All white walls with no artwork?

  5. Stephen Bowie Says:

    DeathShrike: I’ve tried Greencine off and on, and was never very impressed by their selection or availability. Of course, Netflix’s decline can only make them look better. There are two mail order rental companies that do carry a large number of titles that Netflix doesn’t have: Facets (which I haven’t tried) and Classicflix (which I can recommend).

    Sasha: I hate the whole idea of collecting. It conflicts with my idea that art (or anything of value, really) can only be experienced, not owned. My apartment is filled with crap (books, tapes, DVDs) because those are the tools of my trade but, yes, I’d love nothing more than to throw it all out and have Michael Mann redesign my digs in steel and glass.

    • DeathShrike Says:

      I only just started with GreenCine. I don’t think I would use them as a primary service, I just don’t think I could survive without the ostensible “we have everything” Netflix bit. But as far as exploitation, kung fu, indies etc are concerned, they clearly seem to care and make a point of keeping DVDs that mainstreamers could give a shit about.

  6. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Oh, and DeathShrike, now that I notice you’ve posted twice on that same subject, I suspect you’re a GreenCine sock puppet, and you’ve given me one more reason to be unimpressed with that company.

    • DeathShrike Says:

      Whoa, that took a turn. I’ve never been accused of that before. Sorry I mentioned the same thing twice.

  7. Michael Alden Says:

    So, right now, is Blockbuster a better option than Netflix? I used to belong to both as they didn’t always have the same items but I gave up Blockbuster a couple of years ago.

    • DeathShrike Says:

      Blockbuster only worked for me as a supplement to Netflix. It was never good enough to be a sole provider. However, the website has fallen into disrepair, and less and less movies are kept in stock, rendering it’s meager uses no longer valid.

  8. Mark Wright Says:

    Thanks for the nice piece, Stephen. I found mention of it in the Home Media Magazine article, & just discovered your great blog. I own an independent video shop in greater LA (Videotheque, in South Pasadena), and though we have an ardent & vast customer base, am feeling like the last quality outpost in the West (barring Cinefile, Vidiots). Among our 20,000+ collection, we stock hundreds & hundreds of non-Netflix available titles such as: the Warner Archive Collection/Sony-Columbia on Demand/MGM on demand, plus ALL Criterion DVD & blu-rays (including the Eclipse line), & other smaller label items (like Losey’s “The Prowler”), plus “non-official” editions of hundreds more rare pieces. Keep up the good work (& shining the light on Netflix inadequacy). Should you find yourself in the Pasadena environs, drop in and say hello.

    Mark Wright

    Videotheque 1020 Mission St
    South Pasadena, CA 91030
    vidtheque.com

  9. Robowriter Says:

    A very well-written essay. My Netflix lists (since March 2006) are extensive and showed (before Netflix abruptly deleted them) that Netflix stocked 180 new releases per week on average in 2008, 90 per week on average in 2009, 60 per week on average in the first half of 2010 and 29 per week on average in the second half of 2010, and 23 per week on average this year. In other words, they are seriously falling behind in their Save-to-Add inventory conversion backlog. I don’t mind if they convert this lag to streaming — though I still prefer DVD for additional features despite delivery hiatus — but my point is I want them to stock everything at all times (if it’s been published and available not just convenient or profitable) to stock.

  10. Michael Alden Says:

    I’ve dropped Netflix and actually had to call them to tell them why. When you end your membership, they ask you all of these questions as to why. None of which mentions the fact that they no longer stock most new DVDs. All of the pre-set answers are all about streaming as if it couldn’t possibly be about anything else because streaming video is all that matters. I’ll take my chances with Blockbuster.


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