the not-so-hidden value of netflix

i’m pretty much completely in love with netflix.

it started with some casual experimentation through a friend during college.  he had a netflix subscription and we’d often get triple features of obscure asian action flicks (digging deep in the early career of jet li with the once upon a time in china series — which i highly recommend, btw) and post-modern art films like  eXistenZ and naked lunch (and pretty much anything else by david cronenberg).

after graduation, netflix and i drifted apart, and i spent more time with the cult classics, indpendent and anime sections at hollywood video.

all that changed when erin and i had kids.

what used to be a simple 20 minute trip to see what we haven’t watched already and browse the new video releases, suddenly became: “do we take G with us?  should one of us go alone?  this sucks…maybe we can just download something…”  suddenly, netflix was not only a great library of obscure videos, but a welcome replacement for what used to be the friday night trip to the video store.

sure there’s the fact that you don’t get your videos right away.  but i think that’s just a matter of retraining your brain.  rather than expecting you’ll hit the video store on friday, if you already have a queue set up of stuff you want, one that you’re watching and updating in between deliveries, you’re guaranteed that when friday (or whenever) hits, you’ll have something you know you want to watch.  and the recommendation engine really is pretty good (most of the time).

but even that isn’t what makes netflix a comcast- (or insert-cable-company-name-here) killer.  no, the real secret (that isn’t really a secret) of netflix is their instant viewing catalog.

i’ve been using the watch instantly feature a lot lately.  much more so than the dvd rentals themselves.  often, we’ll forget to put the dvd’s in the mail — something that was completely unfounded a couple years ago.  but i don’t beat myself up over losing value in the membership with netflix by hanging onto dvd’s longer than we need to anymore.  and the reason is that there are hundreds — if not thousands — of titles i want to watch that i can check out right this second.  my 4 year old just finished the full run of the original astroboy series, which he’s been working on for the past several weekends.  we watched wall-e for the first time streamed through netflix, and then for the second and third times.  we’re not really  huge on dora the explorer, but the fact that you can stream the full first and second seasons means that if and when it comes up, we can play it for the kids and not have to own the dvds.  and we’ve discovered great new kid shows like kipper and the rubbadubbers that we wouldn’t have found otherwise.

watch instantly is perfect for hermetic parents like us, who are more likely to buy books on amazon than hop in a car to barnes & nobles or a used book store because the latter means making oneself look vaguely presentable to the outside world, getting the kids’ jackets and shoes on, remembering to take the kids to the potty, making sure to take the dog outside to pee…by the time all that’s done, it’s time for lunch (or dinner, or bed, etc…).  i’d love to be able to go see new movies, but being able to see new-ish rentals streamed via netflix isn’t too bad, either.

it’s all thanks to their recent partnership with starz, a premium cable channel like hbo and showtime that honestly, i’d never even heard of before i read this article in wired.  but i’m sure glad they forged the deal, because all of a sudden, netflix exploded with streaming options the like of which longtime subscribers had never seen before.  and not just the weird, obscure, b-movie indie-type films like cannibal: the musical or B.U.S.T.E.D.(both of which you can stream, by the way, and i recommend both of them).  no, as previously mentioned, mainstream — and top selling — flicks like wall-e and bridget jones’s diary can be streamed as well now.

how netflix pulls it off involves a complex system of who has access rights for broadcasting films that i only understand half of.  i recommend reading the previously mentioned (and linked) wired article for a better explanation than i could begin to articulate.  what i do know is that it’s one thing to rent out dvds (or cds, or videos) because ownership law states that once you own something, you can pretty much do whatever you want with it shy of reproducing copies of it yourself and profiting off it — which includes renting out your copies of the originals.  once you decide to stream content — this applies to any content, be it video or audio — you enter into a whole different world of copyright law as it applies to broadcasting and who gets what royalties.  by partnering with starz, starz essentially deals with the legal stuff — because they already have that in place.  netflix shares starz’s access to new (and old) movies, and passes along the streaming content to its’ subscriber base.  i only hope that eventually hbo and showtime decide to stop fighting netflix and jump on the boat, because it shouldn’t matter to them — either way they’ll get their paycheck, and i’m guessing a whole bunch more people will jump onto netflix if netflix has a vast new library that includes everything hbo or showtime has access to.

this, of course, makes netflix public enemy number 1 in the eyes of the other content providers for movies and television — your cable company.  it will be interesting to see how things play out, but already there’s momentum to move stuff online and content providers will need to think (and act) more like isps to keep their users.  soon it will be hulu + netflix vs. cable tv with hbo.  i know what side i’m on: i may have a cable subscription, but it’s not tv that’s running through that coax — it’s data.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.