I have been a member of Netflix since October 2001. I remember being thrilled at the prospect of never having to go to a video store again. I was lucky that, pre-Netflix, I had a good video store, a Movies Unlimited with an above average selection, within walking distance; however, that store closed shortly after I began my Netflix subscription. Without Netflix, my option would have been to drive to a Blockbuster, which, faithful to its name, mainly featured popular titles, which I found unsatisfying. Actually having to drive to a video store seems like such an anachronism now, which is why the success of Redbox baffles me.
I also have been responsible for purchasing films for libraries in one form or another since June 2000. Format changes and purchasing options have long been on my mind. Not so long ago, I had great enthusiasm for the possibilities of streaming for libraries, but, for many reasons, my enthusiasm has waned as the promise of streaming has gotten bogged down by technical hurdles, copyright entanglements, and the general lack of acceptable pricing models that feature perpetual rights. A lot of times, media providers are at the mercy of rights holders who are fearful of offering long term streaming rights. The lack of streaming options puts instructors and students in a tight spot, often having to choose between the ideal materials and those which happen to be available streaming. Fair Use and the TEACH ACT help but they don’t always adequately reflect the ways in which academic institutions utilize media. In addition, institutions often don’t take on the responsibility of training instructors in the finer points of the legal issues, and Fair Use behaves more like guidelines and is open to interpretation making a murky situation murkier. Not to mention that the language of the Fair Use Doctrine has not kept up to date with technological changes. I’ll leave it to others with public library experience to speak to the issues for those institutions.
Those of use who have been struggling with these complications for years watch in wonder at the ongoing difficulties libraries are having with ebook publishers. The ebook fiasco has highlighted many of the issues media buyers have been struggling with for years. Needless to say, that hasn’t been going well.
Having greater negotiating power (i.e. Money), Netflix is well-ahead of libraries in providing streaming options and has begun to push that option harder and harder with each passing year and libraries have some things to learn from their actions.
Wired magazine quotes Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, “We expect DVD subscribers to decline steadily every quarter, forever.” Tim Carmody, in that same Wired article, writes: “You can also see the gain in streaming subscriptions and loss of DVD subscriptions as an affirmation of Hastings’ strategy. Clearly, more of Netflix’s customers are gravitating towards streaming and away from discs-by-mail.” This, despite the fact that “Outside the US, meanwhile, Netflix is streaming-only — and still not profitable at all.”
What does this have to do with libraries? Well, let’s start with what this has to do with me. As a movie buff, I am a heavy user of Netflix and, over the decade plus that I’ve been a subscriber, I have been quite pleased with the selection. Rare is the case when I want a movie that Netflix does not have. Although, anecdotally, this seems, recently, to be changing somewhat. Yes, there may be a long wait for things, but ,historically, I have been able to get what I want from them. Netflix has over 100,000 titles on DVD and Blu-Ray. The problem is that streaming still lags behind. They claim to have “tens of thousands” of streaming titles. As impressive as that may sound, it’s alarming to those relying on deep collections.
To put a face on the numbers: I currently have 246 titles in my queue available on DVD or Blu-Ray. A mere 30 of these are also available streaming, with 4 more claiming that streaming is “available soon.” Even taking those 4 into consideration, we’re looking at 13.8% of the titles I want being available streaming. The upside is that there are titles I am waiting for that are not yet available in a physical format that are available streaming. Of my 61 saved titles, 5 are available instantly (8.2%). If Netflix decided to go entirely streaming, there would be no Batman Begins, no Mildred Pierce, no Boardwalk Empire, no Welcome to the Dollhouse for me.
Of course, Netflix does not have any plans to cut off DVD delivery anytime soon. In February 2012, Hastings said that the DVD part if their business would be kept “stable” and “very high functioning.” I can try and cobble together a world without Netflix, but I see no evidence that I could compensate for their deep collection, long tail be damned.
That said, Netflix is working toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I log into my account, the default is to see what is available streaming. If I look at their “Browse DVD” tab, they will tell me which DVDs also are available streaming; however, if I look at their “Watch Instantly” tab, they do not inform me what streaming titles also are available on disc. I have a preference for discs because they provide better quality and access to special features. With a little effort, I can double-check to see what streaming titles are also available on disc, but I find it duplicitous that Netflix hides the disc option on their “Watch Instantly” page. I want to know what my options are.
Luckily, I still have access to both options even if they are clearly prioritizing one. So, if I still have access to discs and Netflix is claiming that DVDs are still a big part of their business, then what is the problem?