Watch + Listen: Instant Gratification

by Kevin on August 5, 2011

This week Sam Adams wrote an article for The AV Club called “The convenience trap: What the changes at Netflix reveal about an insidious trend.” In the article, Adams argues that with Netflix and its competitors going all in with instant streaming, many films are at risk for being left behind due to copyright restrictions, availability, and a general willingness to “give up” certain films in order to more easily access others.

Adams writes:

“In essence, Netflix is gambling that its customers are less concerned about watching the right movie than watching right now.  What if it’s right? . . . As of this writing, Instant offers several off-brand collections of Charlie Chaplin’s early shorts, but none of his features. There are two titles apiece for Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa. You can watch Todd Haynes’ Poison and Far From Heaven, but not Velvet Goldmine or I’m Not There. . . . You can stream the moving gay-rights documentary Word Is Out, but not the pioneering queer films of Kenneth Anger. Derek Jarman’s Edward II is there, but not his masterful The Last Of England.”

The article goes on to ask the perhaps rhetorical question, “How much more likely are you to bail on, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, when with a few clicks of your remote you can be watching a favorite episode of Friday Night Lights?” My question in response is, How many were likely to do that in the first place?

In the dark, frightening days before Netflix and its DVD-by-mail service, home movies were available primarily in three places: cable television channels, retailers like Best Buy and Amazon, and rental outlets like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Netflix changed a lot of that, and other streaming services like Hulu, Amazon Prime, and, to some extent, HBO Go, have motivated viewers to demand instant access to any movie at any time anywhere.

And why not? The evolution of home movie technology has been a steady march toward making movies more accessible since the invention of the VCR. The same can be said about music, video games, and pretty much media in general. And this has all been very good for art.

Having instant access and virtually zero risk should make it that much more likely you’ll give a try to a film or TV series that you don’t know much about or haven’t even heard of. Targeted recommendations based on your preferences, availability of diverse content, and word of mouth from friends and social networking contacts have essentially leveled the playing field; it’s just as easy to stream a critically acclaimed work of art as to watch Click — assuming both are available to stream.

All 8 seasons of "The Virginian?" FINALLY.

So why, then, has the cream failed to rise to the top? There’s no reliable chart that I could find which indicates what’s most popular on Netflix Instant, but a perusal of their Top 100 (which seems to be heavily weighted by all-time DVD rentals — Crash is #2? Really?) shows mostly films released in the last 10 years starring major Hollywood celebrities and the occasional Academy Award winner/nominee. And this is completely not surprising.

There’s no reason to expect that just because a person can easily stream classics like The Graduate, Raging Bull and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that they will because those movies are inherently better than, say, The Last Airbender. While there will always be those who discover great films on Netflix, I would wager that a significant number of people who would stream The Graduate have already seen it and probably own a copy.

Netflix knows this, which is why they are working to push more of their subscribers to streaming only plans while attempting to beef up their streaming library. They know that the majority of movie watchers in the United States are going to look for new releases more than classics because that has always been the case in the movie rental business. New releases always took up more shelf space than classics — remember the enormous wall of new releases around the perimeter of your local Blockbuster? They stock 100 copies of the latest releases, a handful of recent films when the demand tapers off, and one or two copies of older films.

Netflix is working with the same demand, only their supply is strictly virtual. While it’s true that “virtually” The Last Airbender and The Graduate only need to occupy the same amount of “space,” the number of rentals is still 100:1.

Adams does, of course, have a point. There’s a danger with any new technology of having works left behind — think of how many great films are currently out of print or unavailable on DVD entirely — and we have to fight “unconsciously downgrading anything that isn’t so ready at hand.” But unless Netflix one day makes every film ever made available to stream (at which point we become so inundated with choice we just keep watching Billy Madison over and over again) viewers have to make a choice.

As Netflix begins to deliver more content to viewers, it becomes at least in part their responsibility to help us make sense of that content. One way they do that is through the previously mentioned recommendations, which suggest movies to watch based on your opinion of what you have already seen. But this risks surrounding us with monotony and doesn’t help us discover anything new. And once people end up watching all of the best, say, sci-fi action/adventure movies, they’re left with, well, everything else.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

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