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Netflix’s “Streamageddon”: Why Do Streaming Video Services Still Suck?

They called it “Streamageddon,” and it was brutal: on May 1, nearly 1800 titles expired from Netflix Instant streaming, prompting wailing and gnashing of teeth among movie buffs, to say nothing of a last-minute flurry of marathon viewing. (We tried to warn you.) The cause was simple enough: the company’s licensing deals with several key providers — including MGM, Universal, and Warner Brothers — came to a close, and they were not renewed. This kind of thing has happened before (the site lost eight percent of its streaming content when their partnership with Starz Play ended last year); it’s the cycle of shifting deals and fluctuating content. But the way the company has responded to the backlash, and the increasingly erratic and frustrating landscape of streaming in general, raises some troublesome questions about where online viewing is going.

Mashable’s Tuesday piece on “Streamageddon” prompted this response from Netflix: “Our goal is to be an expert programmer, offering a mix that delights our members, rather than trying to be a broad distributor.” Further, the company told The Verge, “The vast majority of the titles that expire on Wednesday are older features that were aggregated by Epix. We recently added many great, more recent titles such as ParaNorman (Universal), Hunger Games (Epix), Safe (Epix) and Bachelorette (Weinstein).”

Now, let’s really unpack those statements. First of all, the notion that we, as 21st-century viewers, want Netflix to be an “expert programmer” rather than a “broad distributor” shows a pretty remarkable misunderstanding of their clientele. We don’t want a third party to decide for us what we’re going to watch; if we wanted that, we’d drop Netflix altogether, renew that cable subscription, and spend our days watching HBO or TCM. Both are fine services, of course, but they offer a very different experience; we go to Netflix to see everything, all the movies, all the TV, all of the things, so we can decide that yes, we are in the mood for an episode of Macgyver at 3 in the morning, or an obscure ‘70s Elliot Gould movie at two in the afternoon.

But the most troublesome element of that statement is the sneering dismissal of the vanishing titles as “older features,” which we should be glad to be rid of so we can get our eyeballs on shiny new titles like The Hunger Games. Bulletin, Netflix: the people who are upset about losing these movies are serious film fans, and they’ve either already seen The Hunger Games, or they’re not going to. Flack for the new releases to someone else; nothing you can say is going to convince a discerning viewer that losing The Landlord is cool if you’re gaining a third-string Jason Statham vehicle.

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But we’ve heard this kind of thinking before. Remember Blockbuster Video? The once ubiquitous chain video store? Their muscular corporate buying power put all the mom and pop video shops out of business back in the day, since they could make deals with major distributors for vast quantities of new releases, and they had the checkbook to fill their walls with the latest titles. When you’d walk into a Blockbuster, they had plenty of what was new, but not necessarily much of what was good. Consequently, one of the factors that helped Netflix poach Blockbuster’s customers (aside from all the due-date and late-fee hassle) was the vastness of their selection — thousands of titles, foreign films and forgotten genre flicks and outright obscurities.

Netflix’s focus shifted, over the past few years, from physical to streaming media — but if the big blockbusters were absent from the “Watch Instantly” pages, it didn’t matter; there were plenty of those library titles, and they were usually more interesting than the high-voltage ones anyhow. And that’s why this recent round of deletions generated so much ire among movie fans; those “older titles” they just shrugged off were, in many cases, movies that aren’t available on Region 1 DVD at all (like, say, Robert Altman’s debut film The Delinquents or Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird) — and many of those that are (like the aforementioned Landlord and Busting, or Richard Lester’s How I Won the War and The Bed-Sitting Room) aren’t carried by the physical DVD side of the Netflix service, which a healthy chunk of Netflix’s streaming customers no longer subscribe to anyway.

This new, oh we’re just gonna curate your online viewing experience angle is clearly spin — a variation of it was sent to several websites that wrote “Streamageddon” stories, and while it’s a good talking point when you’ve just dropped a metric ton of content, it doesn’t have much in common with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ previously stated goal for the streaming service. In the midst of the Qwikster debacle (remember that?), Hastings wrote, “Netflix will offer the best streaming service for TV shows and movies, hopefully on a global basis. The additional streaming content we have coming in the next few months is substantial, and we are always working to improve our service further.” When they gave up on splitting up physical and streaming media, the diversion was more more more content: “We’ve recently added hundreds of movies from Paramount, Sony, Universal, Fox, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, MGM and Miramax. Plus, in the last couple of weeks alone, we’ve added over 3,500 TV episodes from ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS, USA, E!, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, ABC Family, Discovery Channel, TLC, SyFy, A&E, History, and PBS.” Now, a year and a half later, they’re not pushing more content — they’re pushing more content aggregation.

The problem is, everyone’s trying to get into the online viewing game now — Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, GreenCine, Crackle, Fandor, Redbox, Ultraviolet, etc. — and the pie slices are getting progressively slimmer. A few years back, Netflix was pretty much the only game in town; you could cut the cable cord, get a Netflix subscription, watch shows you liked (as long as you did it quickly) on Hulu’s free interface and network websites, and pocket the difference. These days, by the time you add up your Internet costs, your Netflix membership, your Hulu Plus for the Criterion Collection, Redbox, and the occasional iTunes season pass for shows like Mad Men that don’t stream, you may as well get cable — which you still have to have to access HBO GO (unless you’re one of those dirty, filthy password thieves).

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At risk of sounding bratty, this is supposed to be the future. We’re supposed to have all of this stuff at the click of a mouse, but instead, online viewing seems to be moving backwards — into a landscape of fewer choices, of blockbuster homogeny, ease of use, and availability stifled by the business frameworks of old media and the indifference of bean-counters to “titles that aren’t watched enough.” If Netflix wants to keep from going the way of Blockbuster, it’s got to do one of two things:

  • Pony up for content. It’s not like they can’t afford to renew the licensing deals that lead to “Streamageddon”: their most recent financials are very rosy, with revenues this year up more than $130 million, and a subscriber number that has eclipsed HBO’s. But the company is actually planning to drop more content — their license with Viacom runs out at the end of this month, meaning they’ll be losing shows from BET, Comedy Central, MTV, and Nickelodeon. The spin, again, is their plan to “focus on new and curated content,” but I’ve got news for you, Reed Hastings: the fury of a million cinephiles is nothing compared to the shit that’s gonna fly from parents who can no longer park their kids in front of Spongebob.
  • Get friendly. This is probably impossible, but just go with it. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, HBO GO — they’re all competitors, agreed. But so are all of the television networks and cable channels, and yet they make deals with cable companies so that they can be bundled and sold together for ease of use by consumers. Since so many of them are sharing the same content anyway (c’mon, you know that half of, say, Crackle’s content consists of the same movies Amazon Prime and Netflix are streaming), why not create something similar for online viewers, so that we can easily access all of those services for a reduced overall rate, which would then be split among them?

Either way, Netflix can’t afford to rest on its laurels here. I couldn’t be more excited about the new seasons of Arrested Development and House of Cards, but we’re approaching a tipping point with this idea that original content is the catch-all solution to online viewership. There are already more shows than any human being has time to watch, and once the bloom is off that rose, it’s going to come back to who’s offering up the most movies — a variety, not just a “focused, targeted, curated experience” or whatever buzzword bullshit soup they want to offer up. Netflix and its competitors have to be careful about understanding what their audience wants, or they’ll end up sitting in the virtual equivalent of a boarded-up former Blockbuster.

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