Netflix: The Idiot’s Lantern
Whilst streaming video has been available in the UK for some time in the guise of catch-up TV services and tentative steps into the market by LoveFilm, none of them really had that quote-unquote ‘cool’ factor to convince a population of 60 million that they should stop buying cut-price DVDs down their local CeX. Introduce Netflix, and all of a sudden a “revolution” is born. Like Google Search, the iPod and Facebook before it, Netflix didn’t offer anything revolutionary in the strictest sense, but did manage to broker the concept of streaming video to the non-tech-head community, and do it very successfully. Such is the holy grail for any technology-focussed company. Boyd by shows like Breaking Bad (which was exclusive to the platform for most of the UK), it spread like a wild-fire. Students everywhere suddenly stopped buying 35p second-hand discs and started paying £6/month for hundreds of titles available on stuff they already owned like laptops or consoles.
And that is all well and good. But hidden inside this innocent-looking subscription model is a monster and ironically, it doesn’t come from the company or service itself.
I use Netflix. I use it quite a lot. It’s dead easy to navigate, it’s intuitive and when set up properly it rarely lags or breaks up (unlike the Freeview signal here in Portsmouth which breaks up so often I feel like breaking into the BBC and smothering jam all over their monitors so they know what it feels like). I like how I can come home from work, sit down and actually watch something I find acceptable on Netflix rather than simply making-do with re-runs of Top Gear on Dave. And as much as my editor doesn’t want me to say this, it is a good and reliable service and is worth paying the money for. But that is all it is: a service. A service provided by a corporation who deals with distribution companies to host their content on its servers. It is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a replacement for your DVD or Blu-ray collection.
This last point would seem obvious to some of you and the reasons why even more so. But it’s really unnerving at the amount of people, in fact, most of the people I know, that are completely oblivious to it. To them, Netflix is the revolution they’ve been waiting for. They can finally cart their entire DVD/VHS/LaserDisc/Betamax collection down to the local charity shop, because it’s all on Netflix! They never have to worry about buying or losing another DVD again, because it’s all on Netflix! They don’t have to worry about getting a new player whenever there is a format change, because it’s all on Netflix!
Are you seeing the flaw yet?
The fact is this: Netflix is only entitled to stream what they are licensed to stream, which is determined by a contract made with content suppliers. If negotiations break down, the provider’s content is removed. Instantly. One spat in a corporate office in North America and you’ve lost half your movie collection. One disagreement over the phone between two business accountants and that TV series you’ve been watching for the past month has completely vanished. You only have to Google ‘Netflix loses license’ to read hundreds of stories of Netflix contract negotiations breaking down resulting in hundreds, sometimes thousands, of television shows and movies being lost in the blink of an eye. Content bought on DVDs, Blu-rays, downloaded from online stores like iTunes or even illegally torrented will never have this disadvantage.
There are other serious implications to consider. Netflix charges to access their content. They can up this charge at any time they like. What do you do in that situation? Do you pay the higher fare, or lose your entire movie or TV collection? Because that’s the choice you have. Physical media or data that you have control over doesn’t have this problem. Of course, some would argue that Netflix would never actually do such a thing. To those, I say this: think about what you are saying. You are putting your faith into the fact that a profit-driven company driven only through subscription fees (remember, there are no advertisements) would never decide to put their price up of their subscription fee.
The next niggle is availability. Now I have seen the adverts saying that you can watch Netflix anywhere on anything. Strictly speaking that’s not true. Think about it: a DVD is far more versatile (that is what the ‘V’ stands for by the way) and can be played on far more devices than Netflix can, with the significant advantage of having no need for a Broadband, 3G or 4G connection. Even a top-of-the range Blu-Ray disc can be enjoyed with a suitable player and a TV without having to fret about your flatmates using up all the bandwidth playing Call of Duty in the next room.
And lastly, there’s the quality. Simply put, a video streamed from Netflix is only as good as your Internet connection is right at this very second. A video played from a DVD or Blu-ray disc will always display at the maximum possible quality, no ifs and no buts. They can’t not. Netflix, by it’s very nature, will never be able to compete with that. And for those who argue that Netflix does stream in HD and is now experimenting with 4K, I feel I must point out that simply saying a video is in “High Definition” online does not make it as high a quality as a video stored on a physical disc. But that’s a topic for another time.
Netflix has never billed itself as a replacement for physical media, nor has it ever mentioned that you should never need buy or download movies ever again. It is the people using it that have made that particular illogical leap. And this plays out rather well for streaming company. The more and more people sucker themselves into relinquishing control over their media collections, the more and more power companies like Netflix have over you. I’m not saying ‘don’t use Netflix’, nor will you hear me say it in the near future. What I’m saying is ‘don’t JUST use Netflix’. It’s more akin to Blockbuster or your local library than your DVD shelves or your Movies folder. And we all know what happened to Blockbuster in the end.
Now if you’ll excuse me, Season 7 of The Next Generation has just popped up on my recommendations. Did I hear somebody say ‘bing-watch’?