Sunday, October 9, 2016

Something Missing at Netflix

Everyone seems to be using the mighty, mighty N-word as the future, lately:
Cable providers see it as their "replacement".  The network TV industry sees it as a "new network", the first of many that will ultimately replace broadcast and cable with new made-for-streaming Original series.  Studios scapegoat it as the reason they can't (or, they hope, shouldn't) release their movies on Blu-ray, as even Warner's paranoia has now started putting "Not Available on Netflix" stickers on their hit disks.  And now even CEO Reed Hastings has made deals with upscale theater chain iPic to screen Netflix movies in theaters, to make the company a movie/TV production house.
No matter what branch of the entertainment industry you're in, Netflix is the all-purpose word of What Entertainment Will Probably Become in Ten or Twenty Years.  There's just one group of folks who don't happen to think Netflix is becoming the "future" of anything...As a matter of fact, they're traumatically starting to come to grips with it becoming the past.  That group would be the longtime subscribers.
Streaming-programming fan site Exstreamist keeps a running column on Netflix's programming, and what they've noticed is that Netflix's programming is literally half of what it was in 2012:
"Netflix down 50% in four years", Exstreamist 9/28/16

The site also keeps a running monthly update on which new movies and series will be added--Check out the column for October 16:
"New Movies/TV Shows for October", Exstreamist 9/30/16
A brief rundown of the numbers:
- Mainstream theatrical movies released 2000-2016:  15
- Mainstream theatrical movies released 1990-1999:  9
- Mainstream theatrical movies released 1900-1989:  5
- Netflix Original series, premiere or returning:  11
- Netflix Original movies/documentaries:  8
- Netflix Original comedy specials:  3
- Broadcast/cable TV series from 2000-2016, premiere or returning:  15
- Broadcast/cable TV series from 1959-2000, premiere or returning:  1
The majority of independent drama, horror, and activist documentaries usually fall below Exstreamist's radar, and a quick check of InstantWatcher will bring up the number on those to date.  Exstreamist lists only three foreign films on their list, for example, while IW brings up 17 to current date.  (And more on the way, as the mainstream US films are usually only licensed on the 1st of the month.)

Netflix claims it's a chicken-and-egg situation:  In order to keep its funding to more and more Netflix Original programming, it has to divert money away from renewing third-party licenses of studio catalogue movies.
But the push to Original programming, on Netflix/Amazon and at former movie-premium channels like HBO, Starz, and AMC, wouldn't have happened in the first place if studios weren't making their catalogue so difficult to license.  As studios continue to push for a Digital VOD future for their movie catalogues--and see Netflix as both the "future of streaming" and their direct competition for those movie dollars--the fewer movies offered for relicensing, and fewer new-release theatrical titles available for premiere.

It's created an identity crisis for the service, that only the longtime subscribers seem to be aware of--Newer subscribers each seem to have their own idea of what the service is there to offer, and like the blind men and the elephant of the tale, are happy with their own isolated explanation of what they've found.
But those same longtime subscribers KNOW what Netflix is, or was, because they were there when it started.  
As usual, history time:

In 1997, DVD owners lived on the frontier.  Some early techie adopters had players, but nobody could find the disks.  Few in the mainstream industry took it seriously--just a tweaked re-marketing of laserdisc, and only hobbyists cared about laser--and with the DiVX format wars still on, few retail outlets besides the core electronics stores (and Circuit City committed to DiVX) had them for sale.  Your local mom-and-pop or regional chain might be adventurous enough to stock two or three on their rental shelves, but Blockbuster Video wasn't ready to jump on a "short-lived fad".  If you wanted a new-release DVD, you BOUGHT one--usually for $35 and up--and then sold it back to a computer-software store like Software, Etc. where the used copy would be snapped up for $7 by a young Playstation 2 fan.
The few lost DVD owners in the wilderness had only Internet fandom to turn to for a mutual pat on the back, and in '97-'98, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph started a business in Santa Clara, CA, to help those lost souls find an actual rental.  Disks were rented in little paper sleeves by mail (something you could never do with the old VHS), arrived in about 3-5 days--depending on your distance from California--and when you were finished, you popped the disk in the return envelope, clicked a button on the website to tell them it was on its way, and your next choice would be sent out.  It was the way early owners survived--If you had a player (and didn't buy used disks), you had heard of the site, and if you'd heard of the were probably a DVD-player owner.
And the thing nobody expected happened:   DiVX lost the Format War, everyone finally got a look at this DVD thing now that it was safe to, and the Explosion happened.  Player sales shot up, dozens of new catalog titles came out in '99-'00 now that it was "safe" for studios to back one format, and one plucky little startup in Santa Clara soon found themselves swamped with singlehandedly serving a national mania.  Lists were routinely empty, customers ended up getting their 7th or 9th choice off their lists at random based on what was even available, and getting any DVD at all could be a matter of weeks and pot luck.  Netflix expanded their disk-by-mail service in '01 to a national chain of regional offices, and titles became faster and more available to customers...Was it successful?  Try and find a brick-and-mortar Blockbuster Video rental today.  THAT'S how successful.

With the push for "digital movies"--which in 2010, everyone assumed you'd watch on your computer desktop--Netflix created an "Instant" digital offshoot of their service.  It wasn't quite the desktop version that caught on, so much as the streaming app for Roku set-top boxes and Playstation/X-Box game consoles that you could hook up to your living-room screen, and all of a sudden, customers could select titles--not all the titles, but a nice random selection of titles you might not normally think of--on their console menus without the three day postal wait.
Users were so happy that Netflix could provide everything, it created what some fans called the "Keebler Elf" fantasy:  The idea that Netflix had now apparently started a little business in their backroom of a hollow tree to convert all their catalog of disks to digital, and they'd convert your favorite one if you wrote in and asked them, or "bring it back" if they'd lost their license, as if the streaming service was 100% the company's matter to look after.  In fact, it wasn't--Like most services, the streams were provided by third parties; some provided by the studios, some by cable channels like BBC America with their own struggling desktop-streaming services, and many of the feature films provided by StarzPlay, the digital offshoot of the recent-title movie cable channel.  (Some customers were angry about why some movies had poorer digital transfers than others, unaware of which were provided by the studios and which were provided by StarzPlay's streams.)  The mantra heard most often was that customers were ready to "get rid of their DVD collection!" because "Netflix has it all!"
And were they in for a big bucket-of-cold-water surprise--In 2012, StarzPlay ended its deal with Netflix, left the service, and took a thousand of their recent mainstream-studio films with them.  Those who were caught by surprise called it "Netflix-pocalypse".  Guess what, guys...You won't get every disk ever made on the service, because the Netflix Elves weren't making the movies themselves.

And in 2011, there was the one event nobody ever understood, no one ever forgave the company for, and made Reed Hastings' name mud overnight (or at least in three consecutive weeks of clueless headline-reaction SNL sketches):  Up to that point, the Instant and Mail service were covered under one convenient subscription, but Hastings was so determined to attach the company's name to the Instant service, he wanted to spin off the disk-by-mail service as a separate company, which would specifically take on Redbox's new growing competition.  Like the kiosks at grocery stores, Hastings' new "Qwikster" service would offer both physical movie and game disks by mail, but being a different company, require an additional subscription.  NOBODY GOT IT.
A baffled public tossed on their tinfoil hats and tried to come up with crackpot theories for the new split and name-change:  Netflix wanted to eliminate their mail service!  (Well, that eventually turned out to be true, as the company wanted streaming to replace increasing postage costs.)  Those greedy bumsters wanted to make two companies and charge their customers twice!  And what the heck is a "Qwikster", anyway??  (Answer:  Since the new mail service would include games, "Flix" didn't quite fit in the name.)
Since the media was still only becoming aware of Netflix as a force of nature, articles on Netflix-pocalypse and Hastings' Folly were trumpeted from every entertainment-media headline, and Qwikster's reputation was so instantly blackened, Hastings apologized in "disgrace" and Netflix cancelled the split idea before it even opened:  
"5 Reasons Why Qwikster is Now 'Deadster'", The Atlantic, 10/11/11  

As for history, that brings us up to today--Leaving aside Magnolia's attempt to follow Sundance Channel's lead in avoiding the arthouse-theater circuit, bringing independent movies directly to digital (crippling many of the college arthouse-theaters into closing), and saturating digital services waist-deep in indie documentaries, micro-horror, foreign titles and indie-filmmaker dramas, since no one else would show them.
Netflix continues to trumpet its new Exclusive Original shows--like third-party children's shows that can no longer break the walls into corporate-controlled cable channels like Paramount's Nickelodeon or Warner's Cartoon Network, which have their own content to market--and new exclusive Original Movies.  They haven't yet been able to escape the public's image of a "Made for Netflix" movie as some 4-F reject that "wasn't good enough" for theaters, such as Paramount's "The Little Prince" being downgraded from a summer '16 theatrical release, or new Adam Sandler productions happily hoping we won't notice that Sony gave up on Sandler's contract at the studio.
But Netflix's history was founded on movies.  It was founded on the movies and TV shows you could find on DVD and Blu-ray.  Without movies and disks, you have something--something, that, like Qwikster, could name itself anything--but you don't have the service that kept us going to our mailbox in the early 00's.   Netflix by mail was a library that let us dig up any movie we were ever curious about, for our own education--If you recommended a movie to someone, you didn't tell them to rent it someday, you told them to "Netflix it", and e-mailed them the link with which they could right away.  Movies had become digital and immediate even while they were still on disk, and movie-literacy was now as easy as conversation.

A generation of customers have been so happy to let Netflix lead and symbolize their battle cry against the cable companies, they're not too picky today about what they get.  
Bring up the disappearing mainstream content, and current subscribers instead spin it into an Ali Baba treasure-cave of riches--"If the movies disappear, boo-hoo, I'll still have hundreds of new viewing options for series!"  (Usually involving the ability to watch, or binge, their existing broadcast-cable series addiction on streaming, without set air times.)
It's "Choice", that's the new buzzword for the streaming era.  But that depends how you define "choice".  A choice of a limited options available to you is not a "choice", it's an "option"--The old joke about having to choose between hospital food and airline food may be an option, but it's certainly not a choice.  "Choice" means the control to give you what you want, and if you settle for something that was the least objectionable option of what was put in front of you, that's no choice.  As a matter of fact, that's the exact same choice that broadcast offered, that streaming fans now cry gloriously that they're running away from.  
I want to sit down and watch a Humphrey Bogart movie from the 1940's; if there is no 1940's Bogart movie available, I am given the option of watching something I didn't choose to watch, and settle for one of last season's cable-network shows instead.  I have settled, but I did not CHOOSE my viewing.  At least not the same way I did when I could pick a title by mail, and wait three days to see the movie I had chosen to see, or, for that matter, when I could pick out a movie or TV series at the public library.  That was the way things were back when we had DVD.

It's a few simple ideas:  More is not Better, if it's not more of what you want.  Less is not More, if it's less of what you do.  A movie network does not become a "TV network" just because it has no movies to show.  And even if I use subscription streaming as my new replacement for cable TV, being able to watch Daredevil on Netflix or Transparent on Amazon Prime means nothing to me if I have to give up classic shows of the 70's and 80's to do it.
I don't see the Ali Baba treasure of "New viewing options".  All I see is the cave.  
And when more of the real riches disappear, the cave looks even bigger and emptier.

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