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).
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:
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.