Tuesday, December 21, 2010


On streaming movies

A few months ago, I decided to try Netflix, after eschewing it for a long time. I never liked the idea that I have to pick one or two DVDs to have on hand, and that has to do for, say, a three-day weekend when it’s cold and blustery, and I feel like snuggling in and watching. What if the DVD I happen to have isn’t what I feel like watching right now? Maybe there had been a drama at the top of my queue when they sent it, but today I just want something light and comedic. Or maybe I did watch what I have, and there are still two days left with, now, nothing to watch because there’s no time to exchange a disc in the mail.

What won me over this time was the streaming. For the monthly fee, less than $10 per month, I get one DVD at a time by mail... but I can also stream anything, any time. I can watch on my computer, and I can also buy a device for my TV that will stream (in high definition, even) the movies there. That sounded great! The DVD is backup, for when something I want isn’t available for streaming, and most of the time it’ll be stream, stream, stream. I can even watch on my computer when I’m travelling! I bought a Roku box, and signed up.

The first thing I found, as I populated my queue, is that most of the things I want to watch are not available for streaming. They tell me, when I call customer support, that there are over 11,000 titles that can be streamed. And they’re right. If you want to watch the Law and Order TV series, or Barney the Dinosaur shows, you’re laughing. And, yes, there’s plenty of other stuff too. It’s just that almost everything I wanted to put on my queue is DVD only.

Now, of course, that speaks to my preferences, and one could say that it’s not Netflix’s fault. Only, I bought into the hype that the streaming would get me what I want, and, alas, to a large extent it doesn’t. I did find some foreign films that I’ve put on my streaming queue, and a few other things, as well. But for the most part, I’m left with one DVD at a time, and exactly the problem that I thought I’d have, which stopped me from signing up for Netflix before streaming.

And then someone suggested a BBC series called House of Cards (also series 2 and series 3), and I looked it up... it was streamable! Great; I added it to the queue and watched two episodes. When I went for the third, I found that it was no longer on my queue. Say what?

That was when I called customer support, and that was when they told me that they have over 11,000 titles for streaming. That was also when they told me that they negotiate streaming licenses with the content providers, and that the licenses for House of Cards and a few other things that had been on my queue had expired, and they were no longer available for streaming.

Netflix say that their goal is to get more and more available for streaming, but here’s the thing: it’s not up to them. They have to negotiate licensing contracts with the content providers — they can’t just buy the DVDs and make them available for streaming. And if the content providers are asking a lot of money for those licenses, Netflix can only afford to pay that for the titles that are sufficiently popular. If not enough people are streaming something, it doesn’t pay for Netflix to maintain a streaming license for it. So the whole system falls apart, and only the popular stuff (and the stuff the content owners are willing to let go cheap) is available. And that’s not what I was looking for.

Only, I’ve already paid for the Roku box. Does it make sense for me to kill my Netflix subscription now, and have an $80 device sitting there doing nothing? Is it worth the $10 a month to me, in order to get the streaming that I do have, along with the one DVD at a time?

Oh, and watching while I’m travelling? Yes, that works as long as I have an IP address in the United States. When I was in China, Netflix blocked the streaming, because the content licenses are only for use in the U.S.

Just be aware that as long as the content providers have a stranglehold on the system, nothing is as simple as it seems, and anything can change at any time.


Ray said...

I have the House of Cards trilogy on DVD if you'd like to borrow it :-)

We've subscribed to Netflix for several years, and have been streaming it for a year or so. Like you, though, I've noticed that much of what I would really like to watch is not streamed. It is very frustrating at times.

Thomas J. Brown said...

Many of my friends have Netflix and love it. They wonder why I don't have it and think I'm nuts for not wanting it. But the fact of the matter is that I'm in the exact same boat as you are. My friends who have Netflix often watch a lot of T.V. and movies, whereas I don't. And what I do want to watch is usually obscure and unpopular.

When I first started reading this post, I had hoped for a glowing review about Netflix's streaming service. I guess I'm a little disappointed by the results, but I can't say I'm surprised.

I was over at a friend's house recently and he was trying to show me a movie he had watched on streaming, but it was no longer available. "That's weird," he said. I pretty much just assumed it was a licensing issue. Looks like I was right.

At any rate, thanks for writing this. It certainly helps me continue to justify not subscribing.

Frisky070802 said...

I have been a netflix customer for a few years, ever since at a work-related dinner my then-manager and a couple of others raved about it and encouraged me to check the DVD library to see if the "rare" DVD I'd just bought was actually available there. It was, I returned the box set, and I subscribed. Then they started streaming, and while chaperoning a debate at a university I found a lot of time on my hands and watched about 8-10 episodes of Heroes to catch up on the show. It really won me over. We use it sporadically but on the whole it has surely paid for itself, if only in Dr. Who episodes!

Frisky070802 said...

PS. On a related topic, does anyone know whom I'd have to bribe to get Cablevision to offer BBC America?

Barry Leiba said...

Yeh, BBC America is a problem. Verizon has it, but Cablevision/Optimum does not. Sigh.