Some Thoughts on Netflix, Streaming Video, and Libraries Part 2

Libraries, Movies

I ended part one by posing a question: 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?

I get worried when I think about what is best for Netflix. Despite being a longtime and loyal customer, I know I am an outlier in my tastes and expectations. I would imagine a majority of people go to Netflix wanting to watch something but not something in particular. They want to browse until they find something they deem adequately entertaining. In this case, Netflix’s approach of pushing streaming content works rather well, and, based on the Netflix web site experience, this is the kind of customer they want. After all, streaming is a much more appealing business model. The infrastructure for mailing discs to millions of

Netflix, by Bedtime Champ

customers is much more demanding and work intensive than the infrastructure needing for streaming. And with shipping discs, they need to take damage and loss into consideration. Yes, maintaining the servers to handle millions of customers demanding video content is not without its problems, but I would imagine it is a much more sustainable option, from Netflix’s point of view.

As a librarian and movie buff, I have several concerns. One is that streaming, obviously, relies on an Internet connection and not all Internet connections are created equal and neither are all digitization processes. I have found the quality of streaming content to vary significantly from film to film and even the best streams pale in comparison to Blu-ray. The math bears this out. According to PC World, the best streams come in at between 5 and 10 mbps, which is on par with standard DVDs. However, Blu-ray feeds content at nearly 36 mbps. ISPs are unlikely to open up their bandwidth that much and, if they do allow extra bandwidth, they often charge more for it. The issue of the digital divide is too great an issue to cover here, but it certainly comes into play when streaming is given priority.

As I mentioned earlier, the loss of special features is a major issue for film fans and scholars. Securing streaming rights for feature films is one thing; securing them for the myriad esoteric bits and pieces that accompany, say, many of the Criterion Collection titles is another thing altogether. In one of my prior library jobs, we held on to a LaserDisc of E.T. because one of the special features was used for a class and was not available in any subsequent release of the film. To the best of my knowledge, many of the “making of” featurettes included with the 1997 release of the Star Wars Special Editions have not seen the light of day elsewhere, at least not legally. If special features don’t survive the jump from LaserDisc to VHS to DVD, then the chances of them making the jump to streaming are even less so.

vhs by Rakka

But this is not only a risk for the special features but for the films themselves. In my queue, titles come and go as streaming options, not only because of rights issues but also because of competing interests. For example, HBO decided to pull content from Netflix because of their own streaming service, HBOGO, which is available only to their cable subscribers. Sony Corp has pulled content for fear of alienating other distributors. Starz, likewise, has pulled content. Similarly, the Criterion Collection not so long ago inked an exclusive streaming deal with Hulu

HBO often puts a long moratorium on their DVD releases, prompting debate into the ethicality of illegally accessing of popular shows, like Game of Thrones, when paid options are not reasonably available. If I want streaming access to Game of Thrones, Seven Samaurai and Netflix content, I need to pay for an Internet connection (with additional $$ for extra bandwidth), a cable subscription with premium access to HBO, a Netflix subscription and a Hulu Plus subscription. Suddenly, driving to the video store doesn’t sound so bad.

These issues are not only affecting home viewers but also independent movie theaters. As major studios push to distribute only digital copies, small theaters are often not able to afford the new technology needed for projection. As John Lichman writes for Buzzfeed, “The same way that some films never made it to VHS and from VHS to DVD, it’s a given that some won’t make it to DCP [Digital Cinema Packages] restoration and will remain locked in studio vaults.” Julia Marchese, an employee of the New Beverly Theater in Los Angeles and founder of Petition for 35mm, in Lichman’s post, raises the concern that some of the studios have begun destroying 35mm prints.

Of course, there are bigger issues than my personal movie watching growing increasingly complicated. With things being in such flux and so muddled, relying on streaming for preservation is foolhardy. I don’t feel like I’m being alarmist about my concerns. Many films have never made the jump from VHS to DVD. Penelope Spheeris’s highly regarded and legendary documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, about the Los Angeles punk rock scene is one example that comes to mind. King Vidor’s classic, The Crowd, likewise has never made it to DVD. It was touch and go for many years for The African Queen, which has only relatively recently been released on DVD after years of rights changing hands and of difficulty in finding a good negative to work with. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers is available on DVD, but the Criterion version with all its special features is long out of print. With each format change, valuable materials get left by the wayside. Thanks to the Internet, we have access to more video content than ever, but as Kent Jones points out in the January-February 2012 issue of Film Comment:

The opening of the rabbit hole is bigger than ever, and it’s getting to the point where every movie needs a dedicated, vigilant advocate. The stuff that’s being properly restored looks terrific, but it’s a trickle.

And this is the big takeaway for libraries. All these format changes are putting our cultural heritage at risk and libraries need to keep preservation in mind. I don’t have the expertise to discuss the finer points of the legal and technical issues involved but I do know enough to see that film is becoming, in a way, ephemeral.

And those investing in ebooks should take interest because what ebooks have in common with film is that they create a divide between content and the delivery method that didn’t exist previously. Book preservation has been rather straight-forward in that the content cannot escape the container. This is not so with digital content. Our experience of these things is dependent on a transfer mechanism. It is this dependence on a device that gives us fits and creates what Nora Almeida, in her excellent article in the Spring 2012 issue of Art Documentation, calls “the culture of instability.” In discussing media arts in general but not film specifically, she writes that a

strictly techno-centric approach to media preservation is…problematic because digital art is not static or tied to a physical medium in the same way that analog art is.

My experience in film librarianship has shown that there are no easy answers to this dilemma, that there is no systematic way to preserve these assets in a format-independent way. But as more and more of our collections go this route, our attention and energy need to stay focused on finding solutions to our long-term preservation agenda.

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