I’ve finally started watching House of Cards. Everyone who has seen it is right. The show is one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen, and the fact it is exclusively on Netflix helps the show build its universe and showcase excellent performances in a shorter time frame. It also helped the new season of Arrested Development, allowing the jokes to quickly build and ensuring that nothing would be lost due to short attention spans. This, I’m sure, is the reason the show was cancelled in the first place.
But the strength of streaming is not just in its exclusive shows. Streaming is great, for a lot of reasons. But there are aspects of it that spell potential trouble. Nothing is ever perfect, so this little rant should be an indication that we should storm the Hulu headquarters with pitchforks and drunken yelling. But it is important to know everything about a service, and now that Blockbuster is finally dead and streaming looks to be the primary method of distribution of films, we need to really think about what we’re in for.
First, the selection is better than a traditional rental store could ever be. Even DVD by the mail was better than Blockbuster ever hoped to be, with its expansive selection that could cater to all tastes. If you were lucky, Blockbuster may have one film in the Criterion Collection. Hulu Plus has hundreds. Blockbuster would never allow anyone to rent the full run of a TV show. Netflix and Amazon Prime create their own. I can spend a weekend watching all 15 episodes of The Story of Film and still have 243 things left on my queue. And that’s not even scratching the surface of everything Netflix has in its library.
Second, streaming actually does provide a much lower cost alternative than any of its rental counterparts. Video rental shops would charge per film, as Hollywood studios demanded. Netflix and Hulu charge a per month fee, which means that someone with a lot of time on their hands could watch films that would have cost them hundreds of dollars to rent individually. There are some places (like iTunes) that do charge per film rental fees, but those places are used by an exclusive group of people known as “morons.” The point is that this is the biggest reason the stake has finally been driven into Blockbuster’s corpse is that they were no longer cost effective.
So, streaming services are a low cost alternative that gives people the largest library of media possible. So where are the downsides to streaming?
There is a big one that needs to be mentioned – it gives studios more power over our viewing options than they should have. Have you noticed that certain movies expire from Netflix seemingly at random? There is a reason for this, and it goes back to the start of the home video revolution. Back in the day, video would drive studios nuts because people could pay for their copy of Ernest Gets Incarcerated in a Turkish Prison once and watch it until the VCR ate their tape. The problem was that “paying for it once” bit. But there was little they could do as the Supreme Court said videos were perfectly legal and the market boomed. Their initial plan was to pretty much keep Blockbuster in its back pocket. Only newer films would be emphasized and older films would not be on hand. It coincided with the rise of the multiplex, where theaters would have 24 screens and 18 of them would play the newest Lethal Weapon film. Streaming put a kibosh on that, which meant that control of the product was no longer at the discretion of the studios. Expiration dates are an attempt to get that control back.
But so what? It may be added, and I can just buy a digital copy, right? Well, no. When you buy a digital copy, you’re not buying the file. You’re buying the license to use that file. That license, in most cases, can be removed at the discretion of the providers. Imagine if the representative of a studio can walk into your house and steal your Blu Ray copy of Pacific Rim? Now, with streaming technology, they essentially can.
Also, as internet companies start charging for the data people use, streaming is going to suffer. It takes a lot of bandwidth to stream these films. But not everyone has access to that bandwidth. What’s the point of a giant library if the door to it is always locked? As the demand for streaming services increases, so does the demand from ISPs for a different pricing model. In short, internet costs are about to go up in a big way even as rental costs go down.
Streaming is far superior to the old system. I take advantage of it to the fullest. But there are complications to be had and we need to keep those in mind. Still, do not let this paint me as a naysayer who wants to go back to some mythical “good old days.” There is no such thing as that. I am glad that streaming has won and the sun is finally out, but I still can see the storm clouds on the horizon.