Very Long Wait

September 17, 2014

Queue2014

Last week, Jon Brooks filed a lengthy report on the present state of Netflix and the home video rental market in general.  It’s an essential read.

Using one film he was tasked with writing about (Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) as a starting point, Brooks explores how many films that used to be rentable from Netflix no longer are, and that once viable backup options – local rental stores and libraries – have become extinct or endangered as well.  Often the only options are to purchase a movie or do without – something that hasn’t generally been true in the U.S. for most of the past three decades.  Citing examples like the filmography of Woody Allen (at least 13 films available on disc, but not from Netflix; only three are streamable), Brooks points out just how much of the canon Netflix has allowed to slip away.

Indiewire’s Sam Adams then took up the subject, and even coined a handy term for it: The Availability Gap.  Adams sums it up bluntly: “As physical media dies a steady death, it’s taking a good chunk of film history with it.”  Further:

The shift to streaming technologies is often viewed in terms of democratization: No longer do art house-deprived viewers have to wait months to see the movie their social-media friends in New York are raving about. But it’s hard to think of anything less democratic than a state of affairs where the price for a single viewing of Sweet Sweetback, or any of the untold numbers of movies waiting to strike a digital deal, has effectively jumped above $20.

The conclusions drawn in these articles are gloomy, to say the least.  Adams: “With a few blissful exceptions, video stores are dead, and no amount of bemoaning over the current state of cinephilia will bring them back …. It’s a supply and demand marketplace, but when a movie vanishes, it takes more effort to make that demand heard.”  Brooks, as he tried out some streaming substitutes: “Looked terrible. But you get used to it.”

(Brooks and Adams acknowledge but avoid discussing in detail the option of downloading illegal copies of films.  Setting aside the ethics of fare-beating, here’s the problem with that: for the most part, you’ll be entering the same world of dodgy image quality that you find with streaming.  Even on the secretive, well-curated private torrent sites – the ones where people create and share their own English subtitles for foreign films – many of the digital files available are rips of DVDs that have been compressed by a factor of 50% or more, to make file sizes manageable.)

It’s a small, cold comfort that more influential writers than myself are finally drawing attention to a phenomenon I first noted three and a half years ago.  Even though I’d willingly accepted the risk of annoying TV buffs by deputizing this space to fight the arguably off-topic Netflix War, I haven’t written about the situation since spring of last year.  During that time it has come to feel like a slow, inevitable decline, dispiriting but not newsworthy.  But I do think that Netflix has recently hit the tipping point I’d long feared – the point where so many critical titles are depleted or gone altogether that it’s no longer useful as a primary source for full-bore movie and television fans.  Without going into specifics, I’ll say that I’ve shifted my own priorities in Netflix rentals toward future-proofing for the day when those discs disappear altogether.  And, as Brooks notes, there have been recent, ominous signs – the shuttering of more Netflix shipment centers and the end of Saturday shipping – that this door might close sooner rather than later.

So where do we go from here, we nerds cast out into the wilderness?  As I wrote that first piece in 2011, I pictured a distant future for myself that has effectively come to pass: one in which I devote an ever-increasing share of my disposable income to buying films and TV shows I want to see, and an ever-increasing amount of time reselling most of those discs for as much as I can recoup.  A process that used to be as simple and cheap as picking up takeout has grown into a huge hassle – the opposite of progress.

Of course, I realize that the Netflix Problem is not only a First World problem, but a problem of import to only a relatively small group of dedicated cinephiles.  (And potential cinephiles: How many of us came to love movies in the aisles of a video store?  How many millennials won’t join us as the meager future of streaming curtails access?)  But for that group, it’s a devastating blow.  Every movie enthusiast under the age of 50 came of age in a rental economy, in which (at least in large and medium-sized cities) most of the films and TV shows released to home video could be borrowed on tape or disc for a small sum.  Now that the biggest video rental stories have joined the dodo in many communities, including Raleigh (where I grew up) and New York City (where I live), it’s clear that this was a bubble that has popped.  (Los Angeles, where I lived in between, still has a few first-rate video stores.  If you live there, support them!)

When Netflix first came along, I was a late adopter and a skeptic – what could it offer that the best brick-and-mortar stores couldn’t, apart from a poor approximation of the browsing experience?  But with its quick-turnaround convenience and (until 2010) comprehensive acquisition of nearly every available DVD, Netflix won over many of us who, in hindsight, should have stuck with the corner store.  Now, even though its reserves of goodwill still inspire incoherent apologists, Netflix is as dispiritingly evil and stupid as any other corporate monolith – hell-bent on abandoning a service it created with singular vision and competence in order to refashion itself as something (a producer of original programming, equivalent to pay-cable channels) of which there are already too many.  It has decimated its competitors and now abandons the field, leaving a market unsupplied.  In a Deadwood analogy, Blockbuster was Swearengen – and Netflix is Hearst.  You’ll scoff, probably, but I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the now-irreversible erosion of Netflix’s vast movie collection is a cultural loss comparable in scale to the burning of the Alexandrian Library.

*

Things have been really slow here for the past couple of months: Sorry about that!  The unplanned hiatus is largely the result of positive goings-on behind the scenes at The Classic TV History Blog – paying writing gigs, first of all (some of them unbylined and thus invisible here), and also the move of the Classic TV History archives to a new, happier, and much quieter home in May.  That move translated into a summer spent slumped next to the air conditioner, taking advantage of an option of 24/7 movie and TV consumption that had become unavailable for far too long.  Anyway: the writing fatigue is abating now, and I hope to be more prolific both here and at The A.V. Club during the fall.  Hope you’ll stay tuned.

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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