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 seven 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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