Every so often, a bunch of titles are taken off of Netflix’s streaming video-on-demand “Watch Instantly” service. This happens because the company has time-sensitive licensing contracts with other media companies that allow access to various movies and TV shows, just as any TV or cable network would (or any other video-on-demand service for that matter.
However, a meme of sorts has developed in response to this business practice: someone figures out that a mass-expiration of Netflix titles is on the horizon and posts such information online. And, if that person isn’t a journalist to begin with, a journalist will turn the information into a widely disseminated “tempest in a teapot” news item.
The first time this happened, it was because Netflix posted expiration dates on their public website and, when a licensing deal with Starz Plan expired, removed popular titles like Toy Story 3. Since then, Netflix has made attempts to suppress such info in order to prevent bad press, even going so far as to rechristening their “queue” feature as the “My List” feature, which intends to make their streaming service more personalized and accessible. Nevertheless, sequels to “Streamaggeddon” have happened as online sleuths have found other ways to ascertain title expiration information.
On the one hand, this type of news piece is a service to a Netflix subscriber who might want to know whether something will become unavailable on their Watch Instantly service. Fair enough. Yet its reoccurrence suggests that people are outraged or expected to be upset over the idea that Netflix doesn’t fully provide open, long-lasting, and convenient access to moving image media. And even if such outrage may have diminishing returns as the news item makes the rounds again, the implication remains the same.
But why? At the risk of basing a stance on a general assumption and seeming Andy Rooney-ish, we should realize that Netflix follows a contradictory model by this point. While they publicize themselves as emblematic of a more open, more user-driven, more idealistic age of electronic media, they still conduct business according to the proprietary “walled garden” model, just as cable or telecommunication companies have done for decades.
This isn’t entirely Netflix’s fault. The company innovates and operates within an industry that has obstinately and slowly adjusted to the company’s increasing popularity in the marketplace. Even if Netflix and its kind do end up changing the rules of the media industry, Netflix still has to play by preexisting rules in order to prosper.
Nevertheless, the widespread notion that cloud-based streaming services should allow us constant, all-encompassing access to content is illusory, something that is encouraged by technological wish fulfillment, and promoted by profit-motivated, planned-obsolescence-pushing corporations like Netflix. This isn’t to say that “On Demand” media doesn’t have its advantages. But it isn’t full proof in practice and should not be overemphasized or used as a basis to make physical media or its purveyors seem outmoded.
Many moving image works belong concretely in the world, not abstractly in the cloud. Consider the archival standpoint: as there is still no real form of digital archival media, preserving the moving image on film is still the best option. And, besides repertory screenings, many things are not available on video streaming services and only accessible via official/bootleg VHS, Laserdisc or DVD copies. Likewise, if you own a copy of a film or TV show on a physical piece of media, you can freely access it as long as it is playable. No corporate entity will have the power to take it away, as opposed to their ability to block access to any proprietary, cloud-based media that you seem to own.
The “Streamageddon” news meme is reflective of a myopic mentality and should cease. Yes, Netflix is convenient and a technological marvel, but we should know by now that it is and will continue to be more imperfect than we would prefer. Also, puffing-up its role and function as a content provider—which is very much the cause of the “Streamageddon” meme—could come at the expense of limiting our moving image media culture and its possible perpetuity even if it seems like Netflix is doing the opposite. And perhaps Netflix would be more willing to post title-expiration information if we expressed a reasonable disillusionment with their services and there was no risk of incurring bad press as a result. (Fat chance, I know. But still.)
So in addition to being a possible subscriber to Netflix or any other streaming service, hold on to your DVDs/laserdiscs/VHS tapes, patronize boutique video rental or retail stores, go to screenings, and remember that Netflix, along with “the Cloud,” is not the be all, end all of our media access capabilities as consumers and viewers.
degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at http://